Standing in front of a group of complete strangers, and asking them to trust and rely on you, is a challenging situation for any teacher.
But this experience greets teaching professional as they meet a new class and begin assessing the needs of what might be a disparate group of people. If we throw in the issues presented by the language barrier, then the question of how to build a good, working rapport with a new class becomes quite complex. It’s certainly worth some thought in advance, and I’d like to present some advice and methods which have worked for me.
6 Secrets for Building a Rapport with Your ESL Class
Be a Professional
This is a real ‘hobby horse’ of mine, and with good reason. Most of the ESL teachers working today are diligent and committed, and if you’re truly among this number, then you’ll need no reminding of the basics. But, just in case:
- Be on time, or early for every one of your classes.
- Prepare your board, handouts, computer and internet connection in advance.
- Get enough sleep and develop a routine which ensures you’re feeling good for your classes. Take seriously your responsibilities when it comes to making decisions on alcohol, for example.
- Dress according to your school’s code of conduct. Be well groomed.
This is an aspect of professionalism, of course, but it’s worth highlighting the importance of thorough preparation:
- Write a lesson plan for every class. Yes, I’m completely serious. Even if you’re a very experienced teacher, write down a simple, reduced aide memoir in case you get sidetracked or forget what’s next.
- Rehearse the presentation section of your lesson, so that it becomes tight and efficient, with relevant and memorable examples.
- Tailor the content to the class, and practice speaking at the right speed and level; nothing compromises your relationship with new students as quickly as their disappointment in not being able to understand you.
Take an Interest in Your Students
One of the best ways of doing this is to learn their names on Day One, and rehearse them each day thereafter until you know them perfectly. Work on the pronunciation of unfamiliar names - request a nickname or alternative if you’re really struggling. Ask your students to use their names in the answers and examples they give you, just to help you to learn them more quickly.
Remember that your students are human beings with a (naturally) limited attention span. Ask lots of questions, both to break up your own speaking, and to create opportunities for learning about these interesting strangers with whom you’ll be spending a lot of time. I record most of my teaching, and here is a nice example I found from one of my early lessons with a new intermediate group in Boston. The class is just about to start, and a couple of latecomers have just arrived:
Teacher: Oh, hi Jorge. (Glances at the clock) Jorge: Sorry, teacher. Teacher: No problem. Was the bus late today? Jorge: I was… waiting, waiting (makes a repeating gesture) Teacher: Oh, I understand. Have a seat. Who else came by bus today? Class: (Several hands raise) Teacher: Which numbers? (This would tell me roughly which areas of Boston they were staying in) Class: 57 / 1 / silver line (etc) Teacher: And what about back home? Do you go to school by bus there? (gestures to one student) Anna: No, I can walk. Is close to my house. Teacher: And what about you? (gestures to another student) Can you walk to school, back in Guatemala? Patti: No. Too far away. I go in the car with my uncle. Teacher: Oh, your uncle works close to the school? What does he do? Patti: He is a doctor at the hospital. Is near my school. Teacher: (Sees that everyone is ready). OK, guys. Let’s talk about that homework from last night. Class: (Two students: Homework?) Teacher: Oh, you didn’t forget, did you? ***
Genuinely listen, and then ask follow-up questions; the discovery that that a new teacher is actually interested in their lives is an important moment, not only for rapport, but for encouraging student engagement and raising morale.
Be attentive to personal issues such as loneliness, homesickness, tiredness, or external events. Speak to students privately and find out how they’re doing. Don’t simply assume that sub-standard work or poor attendance are the results of laziness; there is nearly always a better, more revealing causation at the root of such problems.
Laugh (Especially at Yourself)
I’m often reminded that some of my students come from education systems which are rather stern and traditional, where respect for the teacher is automatic, but where there is little levity to bring color to a long, repetitive day. The first time students from these backgrounds feel that they can truly laugh and enjoy the classroom environment is a watershed; education becomes something to be enjoyed, rather than endured.
I smile a lot, laugh a lot, tell quick jokes or make funny comments, throughout most of my classes. And this isn’t because I want to be popular, but because it’s just the kind of environment I’d choose to work in if I were a language student. Consider how stressful this experience can be, especially at the lower levels, or when exams are looming. You’re inviting people who might never have spoken up in their classes back home to do exactly that, at the risk of making mistakes and losing face. Cheerfulness alleviates these pressures and helps create an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere. And yes, this includes occasionally poking innocent fun at my students. I’m careful about it, but it makes error corrections that much more memorable:
Teacher: (Glances at the clock) Is everyone ready for break time? Class: Yes! / Hungry! Teacher: Who’s going to have a snack? Anna: I am! Teacher: And what are you going to have? Anna: Every day… I am… banana. Teacher: (Stops short). One more time, Anna? Anna: (Doing her best) I am… umm, banana. Teacher: (Unable to resist) Wait, wait…You (pointing) are a banana? Class: (cracking up) Anna: No… I mean… (smiling) Teacher: But, you’re not even yellow! Anna: (Laughing) Class: (Losing it) Teacher: Want to try again, Anna? Anna: I mean… I have a banana every day. Teacher: Awesome! Class: (Applauds)
Alongside these light moments, I also like to frequently praise my student’s achievements, and I believe it’s important to encourage students to praise and encourage each other. This builds the rapport between the students, and helps them to perceive language learning as a journey in which we’re all sharing. I gesture to ask for rounds of applause after good answers, encourage students to listen to (and if necessary, correct) each other, and play lots of team quizzes and games to encourage cooperation, especially among students who do not have the same L1 (first language).
Draw L1 Parallels
ESL teachers are students of language in general, whether or not this is a daily feature of their work. My L1 is English, but I have a tolerable L2, a very rusty L3 and a truly awful L4, all of which provide context to the experience of teaching language points. I know enough about a dozen or so languages to be able to ask about parallels with English, and to point out possible areas of similarity.
I mention this because it’s a terrific way to develop that all-important rapport. We’ve seen that showing an interest in your students’ lives is a real ice-breaker; showing a similar interest in their languages is just as positive, as it gives them a chance to comment in detail and at length (all in English, of course) on a subject they’re very familiar with. Here’s an example from that same intermediate class, a week after the ‘banana incident’, as it will forever be known:
Teacher: So, it’s a list of ice creams, right? Pineapple, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Let’s do some more ice cream lists, with four flavors in each list. (Gestures a bit for classroom management.) OK, let’s go. Student 1: Cherry… Student 2: Raspberry… Student 3: Lemon… Student 4: Pistachio. Teacher: Nice choices! But, if we have four flavors, where is the and? (Open, questioning gesture) Class: Before last one! / After three! / After third? Teacher: Good! One more time… Class: (Exercise repeats, with ‘and’ in the right place) Teacher: Awesome! Is it the same in your language? “This, this, this and this?” Class: The same! / Is the same! / Not really / No have. Teacher: (Gestures to one student) Tell me about Spanish first…
For a few moments, it’s as though your students are teaching you. Don’t underestimate how much fun this is, and how showing an interest will boost your relationship with your students. I throw out that question often: “Is it the same in your language?” and the answers are nearly always interesting.
Be on Their Side
If you work at one of the big language schools, you’ll occasionally be in a position where you don’t agree with a school policy, but are obliged to follow it. This could be a matter of discipline, scheduling, testing, or something else. Obviously, your loyalties are split, but I’m the kind of teacher who will always side with my students - and, if necessary, go into bat for them - when faced by questionable (often profit-driven) policy decisions which have been handed down by management. It’s your choice, and new teachers in particular should tread carefully, but I tend to subtly place myself alongside the students when awkward moments come up, and they are always grateful for that support.
Building a rapport takes a little time, and a good deal of forethought.
It seems to depend on the mix of personalities in the class, their previous experience of teachers, and your willingness to have fun, but also your capacity for professionalism. Preparedness and diligence, matched by a big smile and a ready laugh, will win over most every group of students you’ll ever meet, and transform a long semester of learning into an experience to be cherished.