The class is full of different relationships. In a class with ten students and a teacher that’s 66 possible pairs. A class of 20 has 220. A few more than 40 and the number reaches a thousand. That’s a lot! However, I sometimes feel the focus of rapport building is on the relation between the teacher and the students. While undoubtedly important, it makes up only a fraction of the possible interactions in a class. How students get on with each other is perhaps even more important.
Think of a challenging class and why it was a challenge. There is often a personality clash. It might be between the teacher and a student, or nothing to do directly with the teacher. Some students don’t work well together, whether they are kids, teens or adults. I remember a class of beginners in which an offhand comment led to me needing to get in between two students to stop a full out fight. It started as one student was made to feel uncomfortable by another and escalated into a shouting match in L1. It certainly wasn’t something I expected from an adult class. It was near impossible to do any effective teaching afterwards, though after class I managed to help one of the offenders with a few key terms. She’d come back to apologise and give her side of the story. I felt my relationship with each student was good; it was just one pair among them that drastically affected the dynamics.
In any group there is a huge variety of factors which contributes to interpersonal relationships. Culture, age, education, gender, social standing and English ability are just a few. The list could be much more extensive. Before we look at conflict management, we need to look at creating union in class. Course materials have class dynamics as a hidden feature. (See Jill Hadfield for more on covert syllabi.) All the get up and mingle activities are there for that, as well as the language point. However, is it enough just to include these and hope for the best? They can help, but we also need to give them a hand in the way we set up the class and activities.
In larger groups I’ve been surprised by how few classmate’s names a student may actually know. Students know the ones close to them, but not necessarily the majority. I’ve often seen students refer to each other by pointing and saying ‘you’. Some people might be fine with it but that’s not a way I like to be addressed anyway. I think it’s important to highlight things like this and provide language to help students in these situations. I always set mingle activities up to include asking for names if necessary. I find it a more authentic way of learning names than a ball toss type activity, in which a person throws the ball to a person whose name they remember and say.
There are many mingle activities in language teaching: find someone who, class surveys, etc. However, it’s often the case that students will stand up and start speaking to the person they were sitting next to. If that’s what you want, why ask them to stand up? Getting students to ask people from around the class helps. One way I do this is by instructing students to look at the name cards from students on different tables and put a different name next to each question in a set. (This could be done by adapting a find someone who activity. Thanks Martine for this idea. Also, see more on find someone who activities here) When students mingle I notice some nicer introductions, such as ‘Hi. Are you …?’ Although there maybe the occasional student who shouts ‘Who’s …?’ In such cases I prefer instant rather than delayed feedback!
While names are important there’s more to rapport than helping students learn each other’s. Reflecting on activities helps get to know groups and their feelings towards exercises. If a student doesn’t see the point of an activity they are much less likely to engage in it. I remember a student asking me about the rationale for a pair dictation task instead of doing it with their partner. Being an EFL teacher I had to elicit the value rather than just explain, and in the meantime, the partner had to wait. Both students were fine afterwards, but it was a sign that the activity could have been unsuccessful. And unsuccessful activities lead to unhappy students. Having students reflect on the usefulness of activities helps inform a teacher of the group’s preferences. Giving the reason for an activity can help show the value to students who aren’t used to learning in the way EFL classes are often set up. From the reflections, it’s easier to set tasks the students are happy to do together. You can also be aware if two students have very different expectations of class, in which case care is needed if they need to work together.
In this article I’ve only touched one this area. I’ve found that students need more help than they are often given to actually get to know each other. Helping them do this and reflecting on their class are two key ways to develop a positive class environment. What’s your favourite tactic for developing rapport?