How can I build rapport with a new class?
Starting a course with a new group of students can feel daunting, even for experienced teachers. Establishing rapport with a new class is key to ensuring that all students feel comfortable in class, not just with you but with each other. This can hugely benefit the class not only in making it a more engaging, pleasant or even fun place to be, but also in terms of the learning that takes place. Often a brief ‘getting to know you´ activity at the start of the course passes for building rapport, but investing time in activities that allow learners to find out about you and each other is time very well spent, even with a packed syllabus to complete.
Of course it’s a good idea to spend time in the first class making sure that by the end of the session you know all of your students’ names, and that they have interacted with you but also with each other. One technique that I often use to try to remember students’ names (and to help them learn each other's names) is to ask them to think of an adjective to describe themselves. The adjective should begin with the same sound as their name. Students generally find this quite challenging, so you need to give examples - “I’m Cath and I’m curious” or “I’m Felix and I’m funny” etc. Get students to help each other to come up with adjectives, and you can also help them. You can write these on the board and get students to remember their own adjective. This way, during the first classes, if you can’t remember a student’s name, you can ask them for their adjective to jog your memory. This models one way of learning new vocabulary, practices adjectives (and possibly pronunciation), and also immediately tells you something about your students. If you are using students' names by the second class, this immediately shows that you are engaged with them and will help them to feel respected and valued in the classroom.
Including some kind of “getting to know you” activity where students talk together to find out about each other and then report back to the class is also a good idea. Encourage them to ask follow-up questions, and ask questions too. If you make notes, you can tell your students you are going to ask them what they can remember about each other later to encourage them to actively listen to each other. Different teachers will feel more or less comfortable about giving out personal information about themselves. This is an individual choice, but I think a general rule is that you should be willing to talk about any aspects of your life that you ask students to talk about. Students might be curious to find out more about you - where you are from, your family etc. It’s a good idea to be open, but if you don’t feel comfortable talking about your personal life, it’s also fine to say something like “We’re not going to talk about that today - let’s find out more about you!” Try to avoid too much teacher talking time, and spend time instead getting your students to tell you about them.
Although the beginning of the course is naturally the time where teachers should focus on building rapport, it should also be an ongoing part of any course. Allowing your students time to talk about themselves with each other in the class throughout the course will help to build a friendly, supportive class atmosphere.
Some of the most important moments in the classroom happen when students arrive, often slowly. If you take a relaxed approach to this time and ask your students some gentle questions about their week, how school or work is going, or talk about something that is happening locally, you can find out a lot. This shouldn’t be like an interrogation of course, but often when students are a bit more off-guard is when you can find out lots of interesting information about them. Although “show interest” sounds like an incredibly obvious way to build rapport, it’s surprising how often teachers know almost nothing about their students apart from how good or bad at grammar they are.
Playing games in the classroom, especially in the early part of the course can really help build rapport and a team spirit in the class. I have often been advised to make the first classes “challenging” to make sure learners’ expectations are met, but it’s possible to combine games, fun and challenge. Every teacher and students will have their favourite classroom games, but ones that include some good-natured competition whilst learners work together on a language task can meet all these objectives. Again, with games make sure you mix up teams regularly, so students have a chance to work with everyone, and to avoid students always sticking with their friends, or less popular students being left out.
From the beginning of the course emphasise that students can ask questions whenever something isn’t clear. The idea that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” should be communicated here. If learners feel comfortable raising doubts or questions with each other and with you it will help them learn and to make the most of class time.
Be flexible and have a sense of humour
Most learners appreciate a teacher with a sense of humour. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a stand-up comic or tell jokes, but it does mean not taking yourself (or your classes) too seriously, and creating a light-hearted atmosphere. When students are more relaxed they will be more receptive to learning. Allow time in class for learners to sometimes go off on tangents or explore ideas that interest them in more depth. Although many teachers have a tight syllabus to follow, don’t be a slave to the lesson plan, it’s always possible and beneficial to allow for a bit of spontaneity in the class, especially if learners are engaged.
Give students positive feedback
Remember to comment on learner’s progress - and try to make this meaningful and personalised. For example, if you notice that one of your students has improved their writing skills, say something like “you’re so much better at organising your ideas now - well done!”. This is much nicer to hear than just a generic “good job” type comment. Learners will also take your praise and also negative feedback more seriously if they think it is carefully considered.
If you and your students are going to be spending hours together in a classroom, it’s definitely worth taking the time to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and knows something about each other. As the course moves on, a relaxed atmosphere can be more conducive to learning and progress, and can help create a lifelong love of language learning for your students.
Cath McLellan has been teaching English for around twenty years, mostly in Spain, but with short stays in Italy, Hong Kong and Japan. She is a coordinator on TeachingEnglish, has written materials for the Premier Skills English website, Learn English Print, as well as editing and writing articles on language and UK culture for the British Council Spain blog. In her free time she likes reading, cooking and getting out of the city for long walks.
Get to know the names of students using adjectives and help them learn with educative games