Imagine you walked into a cafe and saw a friend. When they noticed you they frowned or looked gloomy. You would probably feel pretty dismal. You certainly wouldn’t feel confident that they were happy to see you. On the other hand if, on seeing you, they looked straight at you and smiled widely you would feel really good. Clearly you matter to them and they are happy to see you.
Now imagine how your students feel if you greet them outside the classroom looking gloomy and stern.
Building rapport with students is vitally important. Here are 6 useful strategies you can employ every day and 5 you should probably avoid if building rapport is your goal.
A smile is such a simple thing yet it is so powerful. If you greet your students with a smile it puts them at ease, lets them know you are happy to be spending the next class with them. They are then much more likely to respond positively to whatever activity you have planned.
The other good thing about a smile is that it is an action you can choose to perform. Some days are just not much fun and some classes are harder than others. However you can make life a little easier my deciding that you will greet your students with a smile no matter what you are feeling. Not quite fake it till you make it, but close.
2. Get to know them.
Knowing the students in our class is important. And I don’t mean just their names. Get to know something about them. Something about their background and their interests that you can refer to when needed. Again, students will respond better to your demands if they think you have taken the time to get to know them. That somehow they matter.
This is especially important when you accept that some students have a rough time outside school, and most will occasionally have bad days. Just like us.
I became very aware of this when my twins were young. Well meaning people would attempt to give parenting advice, or worse, admonish my boys. I did not take this well. As far as I was concerned if these people had not taken the time to get to know us, to share our journey then they could mind their own business.
3. Be yourself.
No single group of human beings is as skilled at seeing through BS than students. They can spot a fake a mile away and will write them off in a heartbeat. On the other hand, if they see that you are authentic, genuine and honest they will come to trust you. When that happens learning and teaching become much more effective.
I have seen very strict, almost harsh teachers garner genuine respect from students because they always knew where they stood. While at the same time teachers who were trying too hard to be ‘nice’ garnered very little. Clearly harsh is not ideal but it’s better than false niceness.
Just like every student is different so to is every teacher. It is your uniqueness that will make you effective.
4. Care, but not too much.
This is tricky one which I got wrong many times early on in my teaching.
It is definitely important to care but there must be boundaries. Not recognising this hampered my effectiveness sometimes. Not only did it create an awkwardness with individual students but it often left me emotionally drained. Not helpful.
Fortunately, with experience I got better at this. My job was to teach them, not to fix whatever was wrong with their lives. When I got a handle on that I became more able to show care and concern while still maintaining expectations.
Once again Michael Lansin has written really well on this. You can find a link to his article at the end of this post.
5. Believe in them.
One of the negative aspects of caring too much is that you can sometimes give students the impression that you don’t believe they have what it takes. By making allowances for unfinished work you are sending the message that you don’t think they can do better. This is never a good idea.
Students, like most of us, will rise or fall to the level of our expectations.
There have been several times in my career where I have been in educational environments which promote streaming. Sadly this practice is still widespread globally. There is nothing so sad as to meet a new class and have them tell you that they are the ‘dummy’ class. They really believe that they are not able to manage the level of work expected of others in their cohort.
Needless to say I spent a significant amount of time disabusing them of this.
We need to show our students that we believe in both their ability and their worthiness.
6. Apologise when you get it wrong.
All teachers make mistakes. We all get it wrong sometimes. For all of us there are days where we are the ones who let the side down. We are human.
How we handle it makes all the difference. The ‘never apologise, never explain’ mantra is not a helpful one.
Apologising to students when we make a mistake is essential. Firstly it shows that you take responsibility for your actions in the very same way that you expect them to. Secondly it gives you the opportunity to show them that apologising is not the same as condoning.
We need to show our students that we believe in both their ability and their worthiness.We Teach Well
It is probably better if you don’t:
1. Try to be their friend.
No matter how good the relationship you have with your students, no matter how much they say they love you, it is absolutely certain that they do not want to be your friend. Even if they spend much of the school year seeking your attention and assistance during recesses and lunch-times, when school finishes so does their need of you.
There are some cases with senior students where a relationship of sorts can continue once school is over, but it is always a little distant. They have their own friends and hopefully so do you.
Overt attempts by a teacher to be friends with students creates awkwardness and is, really, just a little creepy.
2. Let things slide.
If you have classroom behaviour rules and expectations then you need to adhere to them. If you let things slide sometimes because you don’t have the energy to deal with them then you will be dealing with them all year. Students will very quickly pick up that you don’t mean what you say and they will stop taking you seriously.
Furthermore it will create an air of uncertainty which makes them feel less safe.
Those of us who are parents understand the relentless nature of guiding young lives. Kids love to push boundaries, as long as they know that the boundary lines are not going to move.
Rapport will not happen if students don’t feel secure so you need to be constantly on the ball.
2. Be too easy.
Young people are wired to learn. If they are not given good things to learn then they will invariably learn bad ones. But learn they will. Teachers do students no favours by making tasks or work too easy. On the contrary, if you challenge them, stretch them, they are more likely to remain engaged.
Classroom management was not my greatest strength. My management plan was based on acute hearing ability, an all seeing eye and giving them so much interesting and engaging stuff to do that they didn’t have time to muck up. This worked far more successfully with the senior students which is probably why they were my preferred years to teach.
The other problem with being too easy was alluded to before. It can make students think that you do not believe in their abilities. That you don’t trust them. This can result in them becoming bored and disengaged.
4. Make fun of them.
Some of the most mortifying memories I have of teaching are of moments when I forgot that my students were teenagers who did not understand my sense of humour. What I had meant as playful wit, actually communicated as ridicule. This is never, ever good.
We must not forget that the naughty, defiant, rambunctious, boundary -pushing students in our class are actually fragile young egos in the process of defining their worth as human beings. It only takes one negative comment to undo the value of the hundreds of positive ones we have so carefully bestowed upon them.
No-one likes to be made fun of and it can make the classroom appear as an unsafe space. This is exactly what you don’t want.
5. Expect the worst from them.
Reputation, like streaming, can be the enemy of rapport.
While students do want you to know about them, they don’t want you to know the bad things. They don’t want you to judge them on the past.
Students are compliant souls on the whole. They will give you what you ask for, what you expect. And if you are expecting them to be disruptive and troublesome then they will probably comply.
This is not a good way to build rapport with a new group of students. It is not an effective way of turning a disengaged student into an engaged one.
Obviously teachers talk to each other and if there is a student who is known to be difficult then everyone knows about it. However, the student doesn’t need to know that. The student needs to believe that the slate is clean and you will judge them only on the behaviour that they exhibit in your class.
Teaching is a wonderful occupation that is at the same time demanding and exhausting. To keep doing it well we need lots of support, advise and encouragement from our colleagues.
Is there a strategy that you have found helpful in building rapport in your classroom? If so we would love you to share it. Every little bit helps.
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Till next week,
Links for Michael Lansin: