Enriching Relationships – Building Rapport In Our Classrooms

Monday morning, the first bell’s gone. Ms Trunchbull is at attention outside her classroom, awaiting her young charges. “Morning Miss!” “How was your weekend Miss?”Trunchbull glares over the heads of the inquisitive students in front of her. The luckier students receive a sneer or growl.Across the corridor, Mr Keating’s languid gaze moves over the passing pack as he anticipates his own class. “Morning Sir!” “Good morning Jeremy”
Keating turns and smiles at each greeting.“How was your weekend Sir?”“Just fine, thank you Mark, just fine. How did football go?”
“Yeah good thanks Sir!”
As a student, whose classroom would you have preferred to enter? Now, let’s leave aside the actual pedagogical prowess of these teachers and focus on their interpersonal skills. Trunchbull dismisses her students in a fairly callous manner. Keating engages with his students warmly and enquires about their own lives.
Why do such things matter? Such forms of engagement matter because academic studies* have repeatedly borne out what we know to be true from our own experience, both in front of, and behind, the teacher’s desk: that a positive rapport between teacher and student consistently leads to improved personal outcomes for the student.

So, how can we turbocharge the rapport with our students?

Start by using their names

We’ve all had those teachers or coaches who never remembered our name. It wasn’t a great feeling, was it? Children are perceptive. They recognise the asymmetry in the relationship and know that less importance is being placed on it by one side. Learn your students’ names as quickly as possible. I try to do this by using their name regularly, placing them in an alphabetical seating order, and having an adjective that shares the first letter of their name in my mental bank – “Tall Tim”, “Jolly Jesse”, “Kooky Kim”, etc. – to assist with recall.

Body language and non-verbal expression

This is all-important. How does the saying go, “we don’t remember what people said but instead how they made us feel?” Everything else in a relationship will rest upon a foundation of respect and a major way that we feel respect from others is via non-verbal cues.

  • Eye contact (in Western cultures. Eye contact is perceived as disrespectful in some cultures. Be mindful of this)
  • Sincerity in tone and body language (e.g. if you need to be somewhere else, instead of continuing a conversation whilst looking at your watch, fidgeting and giving short answers, just apologise and say you’ll need to organise another time to speak!)
  • Smile! A universal language of warmth
  • Perception of others body language – for example, which students appreciate longer conversations, which students would prefer to be addressed without an audience
  • Be yourself. This comes back to sincerity. Students will pick insincerity from a mile away and this erodes trust and rapport.

Ask questions…and follow up

These really are universal rules for rapport building. How do you maintain rapport with your friends and colleagues, or highlight your interest in any individual? You demonstrate a sincere interest in their passions or life. How did that English test go? I hear there’s a big Science assignment coming up, what are you doing for it? What subjects are you doing next year? Curiosity is one of your most important tools.

How can you create opportunities for this type of engagement? Arrive at class early and leave late as this provides the opportunity to engage with your students on a personal level. Attending non-curricular school events demonstrates your passion for the school and provides a common point of discussion.If your school has compulsory reading times, this represents an excellent chance to engage with your students – ask about their book! Kids and teenagers aren’t renowned for their volume management either. If you overhear a topic with which you’re familiar, or could at least ask a question coming from a sincere place of interest, grasp that opportunity. Which leads to…

Personalised relationships

The rapport is ramping up when you and individual students have a topic or “thing” that you both share. For example, many students ended up surfing at the same spots as I did in Sydney. This facilitated endless conversations about the wave quality at those spots, weather forecasting, the world tour of surfing, and anything surf related. Find some common ground – whether it is sports, hobbies, music, art, anything – and discuss.

Alternatively, the thing that you may share doesn’t have to be an interest or hobby. It can be something that is exclusive to your classroom or relationship. There is a beautiful ritual that an American teacher undertakes every time that his class enters his room – a personalised handshake for every single student. Check it out:

In my older classes, I will sometimes play music in the background while they are doing written exercises. The students will get to pick the playlist if they can make a link, however loose, between their song choice and the topic that we have been studying. For example, if we have been exploring meteorology, the song might be “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. As soon as I would say “Song request?” to the class, they would know what’s coming.

Relationships are a critical, if not the critical, part of teaching. Foster rapport with your students and watch both your experiences flourish.

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