Viral handshake teacher Barry White Jr. talks connecting with students

Photo by Colin Myers

Photo by Colin Myers

Barry White Jr. is a fifth-grade educator at Ashley Park PreK-8 School in Charlotte, North Carolina. He recently received praise after a video of him doing personalized handshakes with his 60 students went viral. With every twist and turn, White makes it his mission to have a personal connection with each student as he/she enters his classroom.

In this rolling out exclusive, White shares that his career in education and this unique routine is all about making a difference.

Why did you pursue a career in education?
I pursued a career in education because of pivotal moments in my life that confirmed this was my calling. During an internship at Clemson University, I was teaching a group of fifth graders. During the summer, we would go to the low-income areas and teach a group of students from that area. I had the opportunity to get close to my students and form a bond as a freshman in college. At the conclusion of the internship, a mother of one of the students I was teaching approached me and told me. “My son said Mr. White is his hero and he wants to be like you when he grows up.” At this point, I knew what I wanted to do and the path I wanted to take. As a college freshman, I was still figuring out what it was, I wanted to accomplish. This moment helped me narrow my focus and realize my calling.

Do you consider education a privilege or a human right?
I believe education is a privilege. While it is looked at as a human right and supposed to be mandatory for every child, not all children are afforded a proper education. This may be because of the home situation or other unfortunate events happening in their lives. There are children in the world who have never seen or been in a school. I firmly believe educators and students alike should start looking at education as a privilege and placing emphasis on the importance of schooling.

In a article, you said you memorized all 60-plus handshakes as a way to build trust with your students. How do you feel a handshake helps the relationship between teacher and student?
I believe the handshakes build trust because of the time that is taken to establish a one-on-one moment with each child. The students and I collaborate on making a personalized handshake, and every day we share that one-on-one moment before entering class. The students see that I have taken the time to learn every single handshake and grow to appreciate my efforts. This lets them know how much I care to take the time out of my day to do something personalized with each of them. This small gesture means a lot to them, and you can see it in their excitement to come to class. I feel every child should be able to share a positive moment with their teacher and for me, it starts with a handshake.

How do you memorize all 60-plus handshakes?
We perform the personalized handshakes every day, whether it is entering my class or at recess. At this point, it is pure muscle memory combined with the desire to make my students happy. I think I am more excited to execute the handshake than my students are sometimes.

You’re young and making an impact within your field. What stigma do you believe millennials have that you feel is untrue?
I think millennials can be branded as spoiled, lazy and having a sense of entitlement. I think these are false stereotypes and want to shed light on those of us who are motivated and passionate about what it is we do. I do not seek out accolades or look for trophies, simply because I am doing the job I put my heart into. There is a generational misconception that should be corrected.

For those looking to pursue a career in education, what are three tips you can provide?
Never undervalue or overlook the importance of building relationships — be that with students, professors or friends. The phrase, “It takes a village” is spot on, especially in the lives of educators.
Take time to yourself. We are quick to give others our all because of the love and dedication we have to changing lives, but can easily forget we have to take care of our personal desires. This could be going to the gym, hanging with friends, watching movies. Do not burn yourself out.
Stay the course. I know all too well the challenges of completing an education program in college — from the stress of student teaching for the first time and passing the Praxis exam. Do not let these things deter you from the bigger picture and your passion.

You’re molding the students of today in order for them to achieve a better future tomorrow. What teacher or professor would you say helped mold you into the person you are today?
I have encountered numerous teachers who have made an enormous impact on my life and helped mold me into who I am today. One of them being my college professor Dr. Bettie Hicks. We formed a tight relationship throughout my college experience. She would also be sure to check up on me and make sure I was doing the right things. If I ever started slacking, she was sure to call me on it and push me to do better. I called her my “Claflin mom.” She showed me how much a teacher and their student could bond and the results that come with it. I remember a time I almost doubted myself because of the Praxis exam. Dr. Hicks would not allow me to lower my confidence and continued to believe in me. I was able to push through and complete the education program because of it.

What’s one misconception you feel all teachers deal with?
I believe one misconception teachers face is not caring for every child as an individual. It is easy to think in a room full of 20-29 students teachers just put them all in one box. However, I currently practice and have witnessed teachers taking the time to learn each student.

What quote does Barry White, Jr. live by?
“Before a child can invest in the content you are teaching [him/her], [he/she has] to invest in you, the teacher.”

What are three lessons you hope to convey to your students?
Set goals and work toward achieving them, no matter how small.
Never allow anyone to dictate your passion. Express your creativity and find your talent.
Treat others around you with respect and encourage one another.

Corporate Communications enthusiast, Storyteller, Millennial. Tyra Laster is a digital contributor who loves career-focused content about dope people making a difference.


  • [email protected]
    February 15, 2017

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