Public School Educator Barry White, Jr. grew up in the New York City Borough of Queens – Cambria Heights, Queens to be precise. It’s about as far out as you can go before leaving New York City and venturing out to Long Island, proper. White’s alma mater, Claflin University, is located in Orangeburg, South Carolina. There are about 14,000 people living there in an area three and a half times larger than where he grew up. The contrast is striking. He fell in love with the south and wound up staying to start his teaching career. His experiences, both as a student and a young teacher would impact his teaching style and how he interacts with his young scholars.
Dr. B: So…a New York City resident in the South. Did you get teased about the accent?
BW: All the time! Down here in the South they can hear it…”I can tell where you’re from!” But then I go back home and they say “Man, you’re Southern now…you lost your New York accent!” I’ve been one to adapt to those around me and take on their language and vernacular.
Dr. B: Sure – it helps with acceptance and becoming part of the group.
Dr. B: Are you saying “ya’ll” yet?
BW: Ha! No, I haven’t got that deep yet.
Dr. B: So when you decided to leave Queens, you left to go to college, yes?
BW: Yes. I went to Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Dr. B: Do you think your educational experience as a kid while growing up in Queens has impacted how you interact with your students?
BW: I would definitely say so. I grew up in an urban neighborhood – an urban school where we had to go through metal detectors entering the building. When it comes to interacting with kids from that background, how to speak with with them, how to relate to them; I’m not a fish out of water. We can have great conversations because of that shared experience, because of what I was accustomed to growing up. I can say to my students “I understand how you’re feeling. I experienced this, too.” And the kids can relate. It definitely makes a big difference in our relationships.
Dr. B: When you were at Claflin, where did you do your student teaching?
BW: I did my student teaching at Whitacker Elementary. My phenomenal mentor teacher was Miss Kennedy. That was probably one of the most amazing times I’ve had. I was able to see how she handled her classroom. Her management was so spot on. I learned a lot from her.
Dr. B: What about your first year teaching? What did that first year teach you that you didn’t learn in college?
BW: My first year I taught in a small town here in South Carolina – Jefferson Elementary in Jefferson. There I had a a phenomenal coach as well in Miss Garrison. The atmosphere was so inviting. The staff itself was a family. You could tell right away. They took me in, being from New York. I didn’t have any family around in Jefferson, South Carolina. They taught me the value of relationships with other adults. It would have been rough for me as a new teacher just coming in there if everybody was just doing their own thing.
Dr.B: They showed concern for a new teacher.
BW: Exactly. It would have been a rough experience without that. I had amazing kids that year. It wasn’t curriculum based. It was paced and guided. I was able to express my own creativity. I was able to say “Ok, I want to try this…” They allowed that in the classroom. I was basically given the keys to the classroom and told “whatever you think is a great idea, go for it – let’s see how it works. We’ll check in on you and help you with whatever you need.”
That kind of environment really dictated where I am now as an educator. That experience the first year let’s you figure out whether you really want to stay in the classroom. Being in that type of environment and having those types of people around me – big on family and building relationships – really made it comfortable for me. It was a great first experience because of them.
“She played a big part in showing me how someone can extend their hand to somebody they just met and change their world. It definitely did mine.”Barry White speaking about his mentor at his first job, Ms. Garrison
Dr. B: Sounds like they made you feel like a teacher right away.
BW: Absolutely. There were no training wheels. They wanted to make sure I knew “Hey – we are equal. You are a teacher just like us and we are going to do everything we possibly can to make you feel that way.”
Dr. B: You mentioned Miss Garrison…
BW: Yes – she was our literacy coach. She coached all the grades – K-5. For me, she was more than a coach. She became my school mom. Fresh out of college – young guy – the only African American male in the building, period – and the only male teacher…
Dr. B: Oh, wow!
Yes…exactly. You could feel isolated. She was almost like my mom. She invited me to Thanksgiving, to church, to play ball with her kids. She took me in and made sure I knew…”This is our family and you are part of our family now.” She played a big part in showing me how someone can extend their hand to somebody they just met and change their world. It definitely did mine.
Dr. B: Sounds like you were in the right place at the right time.
BW: You hit the nail on the head. The timing couldn’t have been more right. I was coming in to a small town – everybody knew each other and I’m the first male teacher in the school. There are a lot of things that come with that. The people there made me love my job and what I do. Of course the students played a big part but to have that type of family environment really set the tone for my career path.
The Beginning of the Handshakes
DR. B: That’s really fantastic. How long have you been teaching in Charlotte, North Carolina… at your current post?
BW: This is my second year at Ashley Park.
DR. B: How long have you been doing the handshakes with the students?
BW: Last year, I started doing a handshake with one student; that’s really what kind of sparked this. She was a 4th grader and I was teaching 5th grade. She’d wait outside my classroom every morning to do a handshake…something that seemed so simple to anybody on the outside looking in. It meant so much to her. She knew she was important to somebody, and that set the tone for her entire day. It was so powerful for me to see that.
This year, I pulled out to my entire 5th grade class. At the beginning of the year at recess I’d say to a student, “Hey, you want to do a handshake with me?” As I was already looked as the “cool teacher” everybody jumped on it. It was so amazing to see the joy and excitement – it was contagious. It spread down the line and increased the level of engagement. It speaks to how I feel – everybody should feel important to somebody…to know they matter. This shows them that I care about them, that I respect them, and I respect you enough to take the time to remember it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that LeBron James inspired me a little bit. His team has that trust and that bond with each other with their handshakes, I wanted to take that concept and make sure I applied that to all my 5th grade class this year.
DR. B: It’s that safe physical contact, too – the idea that another human being wants to connect with you in a safe way – I think it’s really positive. Speaking of positive – negativity and positivity are similar in that they are both contagious.
DR. B: If you are a negative person that can spread like wildfire, but if you’re a positive person, I think that can spread at an even faster rate because it feeds the soul. Do you think that if that young 4th grader hadn’t started this last year that you would never have done this with your whole class?
BW: She definitely sparked it…accelerated it. I probably would have gotten there eventually, but seeing how much that meant to her certainly impacted me.
DR. B: Once you initiated this with all of your students, did you see a change in the classroom atmosphere?
BW: Absolutely. Like I tell my colleagues, before I can ask a cild to invest in the the content I’m teaching them, they have to invest in me. We’re constantly told, make your content culturally relevant. Make the content relevant to their lives. But we have to step back and ask ourselves, “Am I relevant to their lives?” It won’t matter if the content is relevant if they don’t see me as relevant.
As a result of the handshakes and other relationship building techniques, I’ve seen an increase in engagement in class – and that’s probably the number one thing you can ask for as a teacher. Everybody’s paying attention…they’re listening to what you’re saying. They’re able to grasp the content better than they would if they were distracted. The culture in the classroom is more positive.
DR. B: There’s that word. Positive.
BW: Exactly. When a scholar gets a question right, their clapping for him; they’re cheering for him. I’m not even cueing this. The other day, one of my scholars was taking a bit of time to answer a question, and one of his colleagues turned around and said, “You got this!” She sparked it and everyone else joined in. “Let’s go Donald! Let’s go D!” Once he got it, everybody started clapping. The amount of positivity is amazing.
DR. B.: I love the fact that you call them scholars.
BW: It’s standard at Ashley Park – we refer to our students as scholar because they are scholars. Sometimes I might through in Mr. or Miss, to give them that proper respect.
DR. B.: It almost sets a standard without setting the standard. If you call them something and they have a choice to live into that standard because of the trust that you are building with them.
BW: Definitely. It silently influences them without them knowing it. Just hearing that name, you start to buy into that.
DR. B: I teach at a university outside of Pittsburgh and we are constantly placing students with co-op teachers for their student teaching experiences. I wish I could send a student down to you! They’d learn so much.
How would you say this process that has unfolded over the last year has changed you as an educator?
BW: Well, I really think I’m starting to see the bigger picture. Fresh out of college…teaching…you can get caught up in test results…data…the logistics…professional development. That can become stressful and make a lot of educators resent their jobs. It’s really a 24 hour job.
You can let that affect you – or – you can really see the bigger picture, and for me, is the idea of really impacting these students, and nit just academically, but as people, by building their character. For me, I make sure my classroom management is tight and we’re getting the job done scholastically, but the thing I want them to really remember is how I treated them. That can become contagious. “When I was in 5th grade I had a teacher who showed me the utmost respect…who really cared about me.” I want that positivity to spread to someone else. They might remember 65% of what I teach them but they will always remember 100% of how I treated them.
We’re building the next generation, the next president, doctors, professors…I want them to have that same attitude – to treat other people fairly and with respect.
DR. B.: It’s really clear that you are taking the time to build empathic, compassionate people that realize they are part of something bigger.
BW: 100%. Really focusing on their emotional intelligence. Self-awareness…self-regulation…really driving that in. That’s a really huge part of who we are.
One Last Question
DR. B.: I can tell from talking to you that the handshakes are just a very small part of who you are as an educator. It’s been an honor talking to you! Outside of the handshake, from where do you draw your inspiration, both in life and in the classroom?
BW: One – my faith; keeping God in my life. And really from my parents. Watching how they treated me, my siblings, and even other people – especially my Dad – everywhere we went he had a smile and a complement for people. “Hey, your hair looks nice!” It didn’t matter. He was always kind. I watched the people’s reactions and how it made them smile and how it made their day. I’ve been inspired by Mrs. Garrison and my people here. I constantly see how much other people value relationships and how much effort they put in to build something positive. The biggest thing – my scholars. They are so full of positivity. I think about the impact I can have on so many children – and you never know what they are going through. To be that positive beacon of light drives me.
DR. B: Well…it’s obvious to me that you live for your scholars. I’m grateful for you and for your time, Barry. Thanks so much!
BW: Thank you for reaching out!
Barry White is exactly who you’d expect him to be: a kind, generous, intelligent man who would do anything to make sure his scholars know they are cared for. The world needs more educators like him!