This Ain’t Hollywood: Practical Tips for Building Rapport

Think back to a time where the world felt free, you were still asked for your ID to purchase a beer and waking up before noon was as alien as the Borg in Star Trek. Yes, reignite that nostalgic afterglow of your student days and ask your younger self: who is that teacher making an impact on your life? Not the one all-too-eager to fail you, but the one you looked up to. The one you felt connected to long before the dawn of social networking.


According to movies, the greatest rapport-builders are the John Keatings of the world with that livewire inspiration, the Michelle Pfeiffers causing mini-revolutions and the Jack Blacks, well, turning classes into jamming sessions. Do we really have to morph into Hollywood archetypes to build rapport with our students? The long answer is…no. The short answer is…still no. Every teacher, no matter the stage, has the keys to unlocking great student rapport.


A first class impression goes a long way. Dress professionally; that doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit-and-tie, but a t-shirt, jeans and sandals probably won’t cut it, especially at the university level. Arrive early, preferably before your students, to greet their arrival and make small talk. It may be small, but it can have a big impact. Break the ice; if it feels deeper than the Mariana Trench continue to chip away with the perseverance of a woodpecker. Learn your students’ names (people do usually respond to them) and finish each class on a high note, not a whimper.


Space. No, not the cosmic abyss, but your effective utilization of it in the classroom. Don’t be a prisoner to the podium; get out of no man’s (or woman’s) land and stand closer to your students. Interacting with your students shouldn’t feel like you just crossed a demarcation line. Move throughout the class like you actually enjoy it! Make yourself easily accessible for students to ask questions; if a paper airplane wouldn’t reach you you’re probably too far away.


Your body says everything. Shrugging your shoulders? Crossing your arms? Kakaotalking that strange duck face? All signs you’re already moving on to read the next article. Your students notice all that language too. Our vital signs should read ‘interest in students: high; interest in teaching: higher.’ Keeping our eyes on the students, not our computer or cell phone screens, shows we’re more interested in them than the latest football results. Pointing out (without pointed fingers) that smiling is beneficial is obvious, but did you know that leaning can appear too relaxed? Be bodily careful.


Students are people, too. Contrary to some, students are indeed people and like most people they respond well to others who take an interest in them. Aim to involve personalized, student-centered activities that bring the lives of the students into the classroom. Whether that is League of Legends or nut-induced airplane rage, discover what stokes the fires of your students’ minds and then throw as much educational fuel onto that bonfire as possible. If more fireworks are needed, give them some autonomy over their learning. Let them choose their next homework assignment, for example (but secretly lean towards the one you want…).


Meet your students outside class. Before you book a table at the nearest beer hof, consider meeting your students in a professional setting. If your office springs to mind, just make sure you hide any impertinent materials beforehand. Another option is a coffee shop. Don’t worry, most students are familiar with ‘Dutch pay’, so need to break the bank. Give your students a platform to ask questions, address concerns and come to the shocking realization that you exist as an entity outside the four walls of the classroom.


There’s more than one way to crack an egg and with the right approach a teacher can crack several eggs at the same time. The main ingredient to a great rapport-building omelette is not powerhouse dynamism as seen in Hollywood movies, but genuine interest in students’ lives as seen in real classrooms. Put away your copy of Dead Poet’s Society and look to real teachers around you who are building great rapport with their students. Are they natural entertainers? Are they buying more pizza than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? No, most likely they are showing their students that they are interested in them. A lot.


Article based on ideas I presented at the Daejeon-Chungcheong KOTESOL Symposium on November 29, 2014 at Woosong University.


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