When This Teacher Began A Strange New Tradition, She Took Getting Down With The Kids To Extremes

Teacher Jerusha Willenborg came up with a simple idea. And it was that a high-five or fist bump at the end of the school day would help her connect with her students. But that little gesture morphed into something so much bigger.

Willenborg started her teaching career at Samuel E. Spaght Science and Communications Magnet in Kansas during 2014. The elementary school had gone through several changes to incorporate modern technology and new students into the fold.

But, with Willenborg on the staff roster, another new tradition would be added to the mix. During her first year of teaching, she asked her third grade students give her a high-five or fist-bump at the end of each school day.

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However, a simple high-five wasn’t enough for DeMariae Baker, one of Willenborg’s students that year. She said in a YouTube video, “At first I told all the kids that I wanted a high-five or knuckles, and DeMariae wanted to do something different.”

“[DeMariae] said, ‘Ms. Willenborg, can I do this?’” the teacher recalled. Then, the pair demonstrated their special high-five, in which they slapped hands up high and down low. She decided that little addition was fine. “Then, he wanted to add on,” the educator said.

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The teacher told local newspaper The Wichita Eagle that she and Baker performed their special handshake every single day. This in turn sparked the interest of the rest of her students. “The other kids said, ‘I want to do one,’” Willenborg said.

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And, of course, the third-grade teacher could only oblige her students’ request. “I just said, ‘OK, you teach me and I’ll learn it,’” Willenborg recalled. From there, they began creating handshakes of their own to share with their teacher.

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The task proved to be difficult at first, the educator admitted. “When I’m first learning all of them, it is really hard,” Willenborg said. So, she added one stipulation to the handshakes: “I tell them it has to be short – you can’t have too many moves,” she told The Wichita Eagle.

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As soon as the kids nailed down their ideal routines, Willenborg made sure to rehearse each one so that she remembered them. “Once they get it, we do it three times in a row. That repetition kind of sticks it in my mind,” she said.

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And, with that Willenborg was able to learn a special handshake to share with every single one of her third-graders. And rather than sticking to simple high-fives, the class added dance steps, hip bumps, synchronized clapping and even hugs to their handshakes.

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After that year’s success, the handshake routine stuck. So Willenborg made it a tradition to share specialized greetings with her students every year. In February of 2018, one pupil, Harmoni, described the importance of the practice. “It makes me feel like Ms. Willenborg has my back,” she told Wichita’s KWCH News.

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On top of that, Willenborg used the routines as a way to bring her students closer to one another, too. She told The Wichita Eagle, “If they’re having an argument I’ll say, ‘You know what? Go make up a handshake and come tell me.”

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Willenborg added, “It’s hard not to get along with somebody you’re doing a handshake with.” Indeed, Harmoni told KWCH that the plan worked for her and her classmate, Navaeah. “We do our handshake just because it’s fun,” she said.

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But the handshakes served a greater purpose than simply being fun. Harmoni said she felt supported by her teacher because of the daily routine. And this was exactly the type of connection that Willenborg had hoped to make with her students to begin with.

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“[My students] are amazing kids, but you know, they’re kids. At the end of the day, they give me their handshake. Whether they had a good day or not, they leave that day knowing I still care about them,” Willenborg said.

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On top of that, Willenborg’s students have gone on to show progress in other areas, perhaps because of the teacher’s efforts to bond with them. In fact, in 2018 she told The Wichita Eagle that the students in her class had the school’s best attendance record.

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And, Baker, the student who came up with the idea for personalized handshakes, was thriving, too. Indeed, in a YouTube video, Willenborg revealed that the student had made the honor roll. And that meant that she got to keep a vow to take him out to dinner for reaching such heights.

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The video of Willenborg’s handshake routine, which she shared on YouTube, went viral. In total the clipped racked up viewed more than 3.6 million times. In addition, viewers also lauded the third-grade teacher’s effort to connect with her pupils.

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“I wish my teachers were like this!” one YouTube user commented. Another person simply wrote, “That teacher is so amazing.” A student from Spaght even admitted, “I know the school because I’m in it. I wanted her but I got [another teacher].”

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Meanwhile, for Willenborg – who continues to keep up with old and new students’ handshakes – the reason for her actions is clear. “I absolutely love my students!” she wrote in an Instagram post, adding, “They really are A-Ma-Zing!”

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