How to Build Rapport in the Classroom

Teachers often talk about the stuff that’s on paper. Grading, assessments, textbooks, the syllabus, and so on.

But it’s also important to talk about the soft skills. What does your class feel like? What’s the mood? How is everyone getting along?

David Bunker’s recent post got me thinking about rapport, not just between the teacher and students, but among everyone in the class. Rapport is essential. The perfect syllabus and materials are useless if the students hate each other and don’t encourage each other to do their best work.

Despite the various backgrounds of the students and the obvious barriers to communication, I’ve found ESL classrooms to be surprisingly easy places to build rapport. Something about learning a language as an outsider in a culture often causes people to form quick friendships.

As a teacher, you don’t want to leave that process to chance. You want to create situations that foster rapport building among everyone in the class – teacher to students and student to student.

Ask Questions

Asking questions is something every teacher does, Socratic Method 101. But asking “What is the past tense of leave?” is different from “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” The former is a comprehension check. The latter is a chance to learn about your student.

At the beginning of the semester, I give my students a questionnaire to gather information about them. Then I use that information to design class activities that incorporate information about my students’ jobs, majors, hobbies, or interests. If Jingyi wrote that she’s studying electrical engineering, for example, I might include a video on something related to that field. Then, in class, I can ask, “So, Jingyi,  do you know anything else about this topic? Can you tell us more?”

That process helps rapport in a few ways. I show that I am interested in my students lives (including their future plans) outside of my class. And I also position Jingyi as an expert on that field. Other students then know something about her. Even if she says, “Sorry, I don’t have anything to add!” at least the other students know something new about their classmate.

Throughout the semester, keep asking questions about your students and their lives. But don’t just ask, remember and show that you remember.

Answer Questions

Teachers are not just information-delivery machines. We’re people too!

So connect with your students like you’re a person. You don’t have to go into every detail of your life, but it’s important to share yourself. You don’t have to tell your students everything about your life, but revealing some things about yourself will help build rapport. After all, the purpose of language is to communicate with others, and it’s much easier to communicate with someone who you know something about.

Allowing your students to ask you questions also helps to create a more open atmosphere. They’re going to have questions about English, but also other things. My ESL students here in America are always asking questions about American culture. When my Honduran friend JJ taught in Illinois, his Chinese students were asking him about Honduras.

When question-asking is a two-way street, relationships are formed.  Ask “Any questions?” at every possible moment. And really let them ask.

Mingling Activities

This is a classic activity for ESL classrooms: “Find someone who…”

It’s often used as an icebreaker at the beginning of the semester to help students get to know one another. But it can also be used to teach different vocabulary or grammar points throughout the semester. English Club has a great list of different worksheets you can use for this activity. In general, it’s a great way for students to get up and talk to someone other than the person they sit next to every day.

In the first week of class, you should make sure your students know the question: “How do you spell…?” Mingling activities are the perfect time to practice this question, especially with a diverse group of students. As they do their mingling activity, they will have to write down each others’ names. Tell your students to practice asking “How do you spell your name?

The biggest red flag for rapport problems is hearing the phrase “Hey…you!” If students don’t know each others’ names, they probably don’t know much else about them. Make sure you get everyone to that point at least.

Small Group Work

Rapport among students happens when they have time to talk to each other and work together on a common goal. One of the best ways to do that is to get them to do small group work.

Small group work can be incorporated into any class, even something as traditionally prescriptive as grammar. There is a time and place for lecturing, but often it’s better to let small groups figure things out on their own. It leads to more production and deeper thinking compared to spoon-fed explanations from the teacher.

The positive effects of small group work for pedagogy are well-known among language teachers. But they’re also great for building relationships. In my classes, after a group finishes with their work but are still waiting for other groups, I’ll overhear things like:

So how was your weekend?

Did you study for the grammar test?

How do you say “Hello” in Chinese?

Those are the kinds of interactions that build rapport in the classroom. They can be created by just moving the desks a bit and asking students to talk to each other for awhile.

Activities Outside of Class

When the last class of the day is over, sometimes you just want to get out of the building  and have some alone time as quickly as possible. Teaching is not only a stressful job, but it’s also a social commitment: you have to talk to people all day! And sometimes the last thing you want to do is talk to people even more outside of class.

But when classes do something as a group outside of the normal class time, it’s amazing for rapport.

Even if it’s just one time at the beginning of the semester, holding a class activity can considerably raise the mood of the class for the rest of the semester.

Good class activities are fun and also allow for some talking (hopefully mostly in English). Here are some suggestions:

  • Going to a coffee shop
  • Getting ice cream
  • Playing games in the park or on the quad
  • Bowling
  • Going to a sporting event together
  • Go to a farmer’s market together

Just seeing your students in a setting other than the classroom or your office can create a slightly deeper connection.

And even if you’re busy, or just an introvert who has no desire to see students outside of class, you can still help students meet up outside of class. Tell them about events or things to do in the area and encourage them to go together. Ask them how it went.

The goal of all that is to turn classmates into friends. Friends are more likely to help each other with their homework, speak to each other during small group work, and feel comfortable with each other in class.

Conclusion: Find your own personal way to build rapport

Some teachers have brilliant rapport with every class. They have the quick wit of a standup comedian or the magnetism of an impassioned world leader. It seems like no matter who the students are, they eat it up.

But if that isn’t you, that’s OK. You don’t need to be overflowing with charisma to have great rapport with your class. Work hard to create meaningful lessons for your students, listen to them, share yourself with them, and the rapport will come.

Sometimes you’ll get a bad class. It’s inevitable and unavoidable. You could get a group of students who don’t work hard and don’t get along no matter what you do. Keep trying and don’t let it discourage you.

Sometimes you’ll get a great class and you won’t have to do much at all.

And sometimes you’ll get a class of students who are unsure of themselves or unsure of their classmates, who are waiting for an introduction, a chance to make a new friend, or for someone to finally say their name right.

That’s where you come in. Find a way to make those connections happen.

Thanks for reading.


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