Having a good rapport with learners is often said to be one of the keys to a successful class. The goal is to create an atmosphere in which the students feel comfortable. Comfortable enough to speak. And comfortable enough to play around with language and make mistakes. In fact comfortable enough to learn. Most of the advice around developing rapport is common sense. Very briefly it’s smile, nod, use names, listen and engage the learners. Another rapport building tip is sharing something about yourself with the group. It’s this point I’m dwelling on in this post.
When I was about 16 and still at school I remember one particular assembly. A teacher told us about a scare his sister had had with HIV. He highlighted some of the potential dangers, telling us how they’d affected his family. All of us listened, without any of the usual messing around. He talked with such emotion it had an impact on many of us. It wasn’t usual to have such direct contact with someone talking about something I’d only really heard about on the news. I still have a lot of respect for that teacher for being so open with us. He had a powerful message, and one which took a lot to share. There are other experiences I remember from school, such as an ex-drug addict visiting the school to talk about his life. Again, he was very passionate about what he had to say and it had an impact. I can still remember him 25 years later.
These are more extreme examples of sharing something with your learners. Through telling these stories the teacher managed to engage us and build up respect. I wasn’t always the most attentive student at school, but I think I was a bit better behaved in his class afterwards. I’d like to think so anyway. Sharing such stories is difficult for any teacher. There are risks. Younger students may lack the maturity to be able to respond appropriately. The cynical may not believe some of the details or thing there’s a hidden message. In the cases I’m referring to I think the teachers got it right.
So should we share stories like this in our classes? ELT is known for it’s choice of palatable subjects in its course materials. Neither of the topics I heard would pass the PARSNIP test*. I can see the case for this too. Students may find these topics difficult to talk about, even if they do want to talk about them. My reaction to the stories was silent reflection, not the general aim of language classes.
The sharing I do in class tends to be about less sensitive topics. I’ll happily talk about the general topics which come up in class; family, experiences, friends, jobs, etc. Some of the most successful lessons I’ve taught have been based around anecdotes on topics such as why I became a teacher or moved to this country. Students have always responded to these stories. Live listening activities have great potential, as long as there is a lesson based around the teacher speaking as well. I also do a lot of modelling exercises. I’ll answer one of the discussion questions or tell a little story about me if that’s what I’m asking students to do. It helps with instructions/task set up too.
When there’s a good rapport there’s a degree of trust. With the trust students are more likely to be open to more personal topics. Learners may confide in you, ask for your opinions or ask you about more private aspects of your life. In these situations I’ve opened up and revealed my true thoughts. I’ve told stories that I wouldn’t put here. Well, not yet anyway.
How open are you with your students? What type of things do you tell them back yourself?
*PARSNIP test: making sure your materials don’t include any of politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms or pork.
Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/katietegtmeyer/67865829 by Katie Tegtmeyer, used under a CC Attribution license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/