For over 100 years Bedales Prep School pupils have shaken hands with every teacher in their school as part of our end-of-the-week tradition. We gather as a whole community and, in a continuous file, pupils pass every teacher and offer their hand in friendship. This is no small undertaking: every pupil shakes every teacher’s hand, makes eye contact and offers a warm farewell or comment and includes the teacher’s name.
‘Have a good weekend Ellie…And you Jane…Good evening Ollie…Good evening Jane…See you tomorrow Dan…Yes, good evening Jane…Great violin playing Georgina…Thank you, good evening Jane…’.
And so it continues for all 200 pupils. It takes about 20 minutes and is probably the most powerful and important school community moment of the week. Personally, I love it.
Barclays chief executive Antony Jenkins has warned of a ‘lost generation’ of teenagers lacking social skills vital to the world of work such as making eye contact and shaking hands. His point is valid, but it is important that we understand handshaking as more than simply a tool to impress in the workplace, or for securing that all-important job.
Given that Bedales is renowned for its informality, the question as to why we place such importance on what may seem to some an old fashioned and formal tradition is an interesting one. The answer is that for us the handshake is a gesture of equality, agreement and shared ground. Handshakes reaffirm and help to restore relationships: the respect they embody is derived not from status, but from being part of the school community. Manners that don’t come from the heart fail to embrace the potential for human connection that can be gained from a genuine handshake, with the risk that it becomes an empty ritual.
I enjoy watching children grow in their appreciation of handshaking. At first they may be a little awkward or embarrassed – struggling to make eye contact, or keeping the interaction as brief as possible. Over time, however, pupils come to seek teachers’ faces, develop their own personal greetings and are comfortable shaking hands firmly and with enthusiasm. Previously turned-away faces now make relaxed eye contact and indulge happily in the many mini-conversations as they navigate the staff line-up.
So let’s not downgrade handshaking to the function of job winner or interview clincher, when it has such potential as a pastoral ritual that can unite a community. As a social bonding tool, nothing can be much stronger.
Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst
Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.