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How to Build Rapport With Your ESL Students

English students in Colombia

Being a new teacher in a foreign environment isn’t easy. Regardless of how much training and practice you’ve had in your TEFL course, facing a classroom by yourself for the first time is always a little bit nerve wracking -- especially when teaching English abroad, where you will likely face a substantial language barrier in addition to the everyday challenges that a teacher faces.

One of the hardest parts of being a new teacher, particularly an ESL teacher, can be building rapport with your new students. Few things are more frustrating as a teacher than presenting a lesson you feel great about, and being met with a roomful of silence and blank faces in response.

But engaging with your new students takes time, especially in regions where speaking up can be viewed as disrespectful or interactive classrooms aren't the norm. So, don’t fret too much if it’s a slow process but do continue to make an effort. That said, here are some simple strategies that you can employ in the classroom to hasten the process of building a positive rapport with your students.

What is Rapport?

According to The British Coucnil, rapport is "Rapport is the relationship built on trust and respect between teachers and students. It is one of the fundamental factors leading to students' feeling capable, competent and creative so that they can reach to their potential in studying English."

1. Learn Your Students' Names

It sounds obvious, but learning your students’ names is a crucial first step towards encouraging a two-way dialogue in class. And you may be surprised by how hard it can be. Memorizing twenty (or more) names in a language that you are not fluent in is no small feat, but the value of being able to address every student personally is immeasurable.

I’ve known teachers that have even taken photos of each student on a smart-phone or camera, labeled them by name, and then gone home and studied on their own time to speed up memorization. Others will use a roster list of names to call on students to answer a question rather than calling on students who raise their hands -- at least until they get used to everyone's name.

There’s no shame in admitting that it’s tough to memorize names in a foreign language, so don’t be shy about it. But don't give up either!

Others still, who have bravely admitted defeat in learning 20+ names in a foreign language, allow their students to choose a new English nickname. Names are part of a language after all, and I know of at least one teacher who did this and ended up calling one kid "Batman" for a year straight. How could you not love that?

There’s no shame in admitting that it’s tough to memorize names in a foreign language, so don’t be shy about it. But don't give up either! Use whatever strategy works for you, and get it done!

2. Use Group Activities

Students in Philippines

In some regions, addressing an elder directly can be seen as a sign of disrespect. In others, they may have had no exposure to an interactive classroom and have, until now, been studying under a dictate-repeat-memorize system of learning. Your students might simply think they are being polite by staying quiet in class, but it can create an uncomfortable dynamic for the teacher when students are reluctant to speak out, even when they are called upon directly.

If your students are shy and uncomfortable participating in class, group activities and games can be a great way to break the ice. Try splitting your students up into small groups, and have them work on a dialogue, then present it to the class together. Speaking in front of the class with a group is easier for a lot of students than presenting solo, and hopefully it will have a cumulative effect, eventually encouraging students to speak up on their own too.

Just make sure that when you assign a group activity, every student has a role within their group. No matter what country or culture you're teaching in, you will have shy students and more outgoing students. By assigning everyone a clear role, you avoid the risk of having more talkative students take over the assignment, and shyer ones dropping back.

3. Add Personality to Your Lessons

Remember that as nervous as you might be as a new ESL teacher, your students are likely just as anxious! You can’t really expect your students to open up if you aren’t willing to do so yourself, so don’t be afraid to let your personality shine.

While you don’t necessarily need to be best friends with your students, and you certainly need to maintain an atmosphere of professionalism, showcasing a little bit about yourself can be a great way to encourage rapport with your students, while also bringing them further insight into the culture and language that they are studying.

Expressing a little bit about what is important to you will encourage your students to feel comfortable doing the same, and go a long way towards building two-way engagement.

You might bring in a slide-show of pictures from your travels and talk about some of your favorite destinations, or maybe share some of your favorite music with your students (a little in class dance party never hurt anyone). Allow your students to ask questions about you -- in English, of course -- or work your way into examples or lessons.

For example, by using my own family tree in a lesson about family vocabulary, I was not only able to make my students feel more comfortable sharing their family trees, but immediately found that they were more excited and engaged. After all, students are curious about their teachers' lives outside the classroom, and even this innocent personal fact about myself was apparently juicy enough to inspire a group of 12 year olds to leap at the chance to ask "What's your brother's name?!?"

Whatever it may be, expressing a little bit about what is important to you will encourage your students to feel comfortable doing the same, and go a long way towards building two-way engagement.

4. Learn Your Students Interests

Students and teacher in Taiwan

At the same time, make sure you learn what your students are interested in as well. This is a two-sided communication after all, right? Learn from your students.

Pay attention to what readings / exercises capture their interests, and which ones make them put their heads down on their desks. Take note of the activities they participate in after school, or the artists they're listening to. Can you incorporate those passions of theirs into a lesson?

For example, could you have them learn the lyrics to Justin Beiber's latest song, or have them write scary stories for halloween? Could you turn a game of basketball in to a vocabulary memorization game?

Other times, it's just as simple as choosing a reading or listening exercise that has relevancy to their lives. If you're in a rural area in Africa, for example, talking about what you can buy at the market will be more comfortable for students than asking them about what they think of the latest trends in technology. Likewise, if you're teaching a mixed group of students who have just relocated to an anglophone country, an article on the best things to do in your city might motivate them to understand the new vocabulary. Get creative!

5. The World Is Your Classroom

Spending your free time as a teacher with your students outside of the formal setting of your classroom can be extremely valuable in terms of building a comfortable rapport.

If you have older pupils, meeting students for a bite to eat every now and then outside of class is usually acceptable, but you’ll probably want to check with your employer first to make sure that socializing outside of class is not expressly forbidden (it’s often a fine line between what is considered professional and what isn’t).

It’s not uncommon for the family of a student to invite the teacher over for a home cooked meal, and such situations can be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the culture in which you are immersed, so if such opportunities come your way, don’t be shy!

Even a simple change of scenery or activity can do wonders for your students’ morale.

If you’re working with younger students, the occasional field trip can be an excellent way to shake things up, and students will often feel a lot more comfortable opening up outside the confines of a formal classroom. But even if a full day trip isn’t realistic in your situation, you might still be able to get away with other strategies.

Host an after school English club and invite your class. Hold class outside on a nice day or doing something fun outside of your normal routine. Even a simple change of scenery or activity can do wonders for your students’ morale.

6. Manage Your Expectations

The reality is, if you are expecting your experience as an ESL teacher abroad to feel exactly the same as your experience as a student in a Western school, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. Every culture and school is different, and standards of normal behavior and etiquette might seem unusual to you, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse.

For example, if you are working with a culture where speaking out in class simply isn’t viewed as polite or typical, then don’t feel bad if your students are slow to come out of their shells.

In many regions, “teaching to the test” is common, and employers aren’t very concerned with whether or not you and your students build a great rapport. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to do so whenever possible or get creative within the normal behavior of your student's lives and culture, but you also need to keep in mind that you are an employee and your job is to teach English. Control what you can, and don’t stress about what you can’t.

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Don’t Give Up

Nobody is saying that building rapport with your new students is going to be easy. But over time, as you begin to feel more comfortable as a teacher, your confidence will be contagious for your students.

Lead by example and just keep working at it, and eventually, even if it doesn’t feel like the open and informal educational dialogue that you might be accustomed to, your students will grow more comfortable with you. As long as you are willing to put in the time and effort, their experience in your classroom will be a rewarding one, and that is your ultimate goal as an English teacher abroad.

Photo Credits: Prinda Mulpramook, Shelly So Hee Kim, and Audra Edmonson.
Steve Patton

Steve calls Boston home, though he spends as much time on the road as he does in any one place these days. He's part of the marketing team at LanguageCorps and a freelance writer, in between playing drums in various touring bands and trying to be a better photographer. Follow him on Google+.