R is for Rapport

15 01 2012

As part of my job on the New School MA TESOL program, I’ve been collating evaluations of the last semester’s online courses. What really stands out are the extremely positive ratings of the teaching faculty: not surprising perhaps, given their collective expertise, but when you consider that the students never actually see their instructors, such positive evaluations are quite remarkable. Here’s a sample:

  • The instructor’s ability to motivate the students was a key ingredient to making this course successful.
  • Great instructor, sensitive, effective with helpful comments throughout the course.  And always available by email if I had a question.
  • This was an excellent course because the professor was extremely involved, helpful and articulate.
  • I cannot praise this instructor enough. He was infinitely patient with my questions, frustrations and problems. He was encouraging without being coddling. He was articulate about the subject matter and one could tell he enjoyed the material, and teaching the material. He was very active in the DB [discussion board] and very responsive to emails and queries. He is an excellent professor!
  • I’ll always remember her inspirational model of what effective teaching is and carry that with me into my future teaching practice.

What these teachers seem to have achieved – despite the potentially alienating effects of the medium – was to establish an excellent rapport with their students. But, when it comes to inducting new instructors, how do you explain what rapport is?

I remember puzzling over this same question as a tutor on the old DTEFLA (now DELTA) inservice courses, where observed lessons were assessed according to three main criteria: planning, execution – and manner. Under this last heading were listed descriptors of the type: Is able to establish a good rapport.   But not only was it unclear as to how, as a trainer, you developed this capacity, it was also startlingly obvious that the rapport factor almost always outshone all other factors, including planning and execution. That is to say, a good rapport made up for any number of infelicities in the actual design and implementation of a lesson.

But what is this thing called rapport? Like me, Jim Scrivener, in Learning Teaching (2005), is equally baffled: ‘The problem is, whereas rapport is clearly important, it is also notoriously difficult to define or quantify’ (p. 23). However, he does go on to suggest a number of things the teacher can do to create a positive learning atmosphere, and, by extension, to establish rapport. These include:

  • showing respect
  • being fair
  • really listening to the students
  • giving clear, positive feedback
  • being authentically oneself

Jeremy Harmer (2007) devotes several pages to rapport (incidentally, in An A-Z of ELT I ignore it entirely!) and lists four core capacities that make it up:

  • Recognising students – including knowing their names
  • Listening to students
  • Respecting students
  • Being even-handed

He also suggests that the quality of ‘respect’ cuts both ways: not only does rapport entail the teacher respecting the learners, but  ‘successful rapport derives from the students’ perception of the teacher as a good leader and a successful professional’ (p. 113). Professionalism includes being ‘well-organised and well-prepared (that is, they [i.e. the teachers] have thought about what they are going to do in the lesson)’.

‘Professionalism’ might be more easy to train than such qualities as ‘being authentically oneself”, perhaps, but it raises the question as to whether the two qualities (being professional and being authentically oneself) are always compatible.  That is to say, can you ‘be yourself’ and ‘be a teacher’ at the same time?  (Cynics might argue that Dogme-style teachers trade on ‘being authentically themselves’ to mask a lack of preparedness. Certainly, it would seem to be difficult to establish rapport if you don’t actually talk  to the learners, and talking to the learners is at the heart of the Dogme philosophy).

I guess the real question is: is rapport an essential component of good teaching, or is there a danger that it substitutes for good teaching? If the former, how can it be nurtured, and is it more likely to flourish in situations where teachers have more freedom to respond to the learners’ needs and interests?

In his memoir, Teacher Man, Frank McCourt recalls how, when he began his teaching career, he won over his classes of restive New York teenagers:

Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.

His staffroom colleagues warned him against telling the kids anything about himself, lest they take advantage of this ‘weakness':

‘They have teachers all figured out. They’ll know if you’re even thinking about grammar or spelling, and they’ll raise their little hands and put on that interested expression and ask you what games you played as a kid or who do you like for the goddam World Series. Oh yeah, and you’ll fall for it. Next thing you’re spilling your guts and they go home not knowing one end of a sentence from the other, but telling their moms and dads about your life’.

McCourt ignored his colleagues’ jaundiced advice: ‘I had to find my own way of being a man and a teacher’. This was his life’s work and – judging by the book – the rapport he achieved is what sustained him.

References:

Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edn). Harlow: Pearson Longman.

McCourt, F. (2005) Teacher Man: A Memoir. New York: Scribner.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers  (2nd edn). Oxford: Macmillan.

Illustrations by Victor Bertoglio, from Byrne, D. (1967) Progressive Picture Compositions (Pupils’ Book). London: Longman.

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56 responses

15 01 2012
Adam Simpson

A colleague of mine and I recently did some research into this area. What *teachers* think makes a good teacher and what *learners* think are, in some ways, very similar. However, in certain other aspects learners’ and teachers’ views were extremely different.

Anyone interested can have a look at the PowerPoint of our presentation (it’s at the bottom of the linked blog post). To tempt you, here are a few questions:

– Who (teachers or learners) do you think placed more importance on the explicit teaching of grammar?

– Who (teachers or learners) felt that the assigning of regular out-of-class work was vital?

– Did either (teachers or learners) feel that the teacher’s personality was of great importance in defining the classroom environment?

– Do learners at different levels of language proficiency place more or less on importance on their rapport with the teacher?

http://www.yearinthelifeofanenglishteacher.com/2011/10/a-day-in-the-life-of-an-elt-conference-presenter/

This research has been written up for publication in a conference proceedings, but I’d be happy to discuss it with anyone interested.

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam.

We don’t hear enough of the learners’ point of view. Whcih reminded me to hunt out the results of a informal survey we did with some of the students at IH Barcelona a few years ago. They had to complete the sentence ‘A good teacher…’

Here are some of the results (translated from Spanish or Catalan):

A good teacher…

is friendly and relaxed – makes people feel relaxed

remembers the students’ names

enjoys giving the class (this is the most important)

speaks slowly and vocalises clearly: if they don’t it is difficult to understand

if students don’t understand they repeat in other words
uses gesture

makes the students talk and corrects them

when the students want to say something and you can’t get it out, they help you because when this happens and you end up not being able to say what you wanted you get disheartened

repeats the new words

talks to the students

As you can see, several of these statements relate to the way rapport is defined by both Scrivener and Harmer – what might be defined as part of the teacher’s interpersonal role. Others flag the teacher’s more pedagogical role.

16 01 2012
Adam Simpson

Thanks, Scott. I like the fact that you’ve picked up on the fact that the learners’ voices are too often overlooked in such studies. A lot of the research I found was of the ‘teacher-on-teacher’ variety: what do *teachers* think creates that rapport?

Even asking a simple question as you did – very similar to our question – can garner a wealth of data. I hope anyone reading this will bear in mind that any study into what rapport is should really include the opinions of the learners.

15 01 2012
Jannan

Hi Scott,

I enjoyed reading this post. I would like to share with you what had happened to me just a few months ago. Many classes at my workplace were surveyed on the use of certain techniques, and when my class was surveyed I knew I was going to fail it because I hadn’t used those techniques in class. But imagine my surprise when I saw my survey with an outstanding 100 in one of the questions. This just let me to think that my students either did not understand the question well or they liked me a lot. It was a basic class, so it could have been a combination of both. Then, some months later, I had the chance to supervise classes and pass that same survey myself. And I saw the same phenomenon, students who loved their teachers would mark “yes”, after I had explained the question well (even in L1). They marked yes after they had accepted their teacher did not use the techniques.

I guess that when students feel comfortable with the teacher, they are willing to overlook his flaws. And as Krashen says, the affective filter must be lowered for acquisition to happen. SO I guess that when the students feel that their teacher is friendly and cares for them, they feel invited to learn and they enjoy the class even if some techniques are not used.

Also, many students have had terrifying learning experiences in the past so when they find a kind, respectful teacher who may not know much about pedagogy, they love him to death.
Jannan

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jannan – your comment seems to vindicate the view that the interpersonal skills of the teacher (see above comment to Adam) are at least as important, if not more than so, than their pedagogical skills – at least when these are measured in terms of particular techniques or procedures, as seems to be the case in the experience you describe.

15 01 2012
MrDavidAvram

Thanks Scott,

I’d like to add another question, if I may:

How might ‘being professional’ differ from ‘being your authentic self’?

Are we talking about the possible points of disagreement that occur between the teacher and the dictactes of the system in his-her particular institution?

How much is ‘authentic’ a synonym for good old ‘honest’ here, I wonder?

What are your thoughts on this?

(alias Mr Darkbloom)

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

You ask ‘How might ‘being professional’ differ from ‘being your authentic self’?’ This seemed to be the dilemma facing Frank McCourt: ‘I had to find my own way of being both a man and a teacher’. And I guess he did. In other words, the two ‘personae’ are not irreconcilable, but a lot of training (and folklore) seems to discourage novice teachers from attempting to reconcile them, or of even seeing the value of reconciling them. When I started teaching, for example, I was one thing in the classroom and someone else entirely different when – for example – the class went on an excursion together.

I’m not sure, though, that ‘authentic’ is the same as ‘honest’, and I don’t think that teachers need to be totally candid with their students about personal stuff. (In some contexts this can actually be coutnerproductive, and threaten rapport rather than build it). After all, we are ‘authentic’ with our close friends and family – I assume – but that doesn’t mean we don’t withhold stuff. ‘Authentic’ means not assuming a purely ‘teacherly’ persona – although what that means I’m not sure – and is probably more synonymous with ‘natural’ than ‘honest’.

16 01 2012
MrDavidAvram

It’s an obvious point, but it seems the main building blocks of student-teacher rapport (or good working relationship, as Anthony prefers) are applicable just as much outside the classroom in our other relationships. We have to have a good working relationship we every one around us to some degree.The skills required to make a teacher likeable probably just as much make a friend or colleague likeable.

Basically, all the bigger stuff mentioned previously… Good listener, gives quality feedback, is predictable enough not to confuse, strives for fairness etc…

The good news is that we can, on reflection, surely improve these personal skills in every area of our lives. The bad news is that some people seem to naturally already have these skills in place, whereas others patently don’t and may never.

16 01 2012
Fiona

I think that this is a key point not to lose sight of. Allowing yourself to be yourself, i.e. not trying to create a new “persona” as role of teacher, is a fundamental requisite towards creating rapport in my opinion. It is only by being present as ourselves, interested as ourselves, listen as ourselves and respond as ourselves as in the “self” that I think true rapport can be established. There can be little natural flow if our energies are going towards interpreting what the mask would say or do or react in any given situation. As you rightly point out Scott, this does not in any way mean the same as disclosing all sorts of personal information about oneself, as it is the person, their personality, attitude and genuine interest in others that far outweighs the “details” of our lives.

16 01 2012
eslkathy

“There can be little natural flow if our energies are going towards interpreting what the mask would say or do or react in any given situation.”

Well said!

15 01 2012
Tailor-Made English

As a tutor on numerous CELTA courses I can usually tell from the first or second Teaching Practice session if somebody is going to be ok on the course; and this is all down to the levels of rapport trainees can develop with their students.

I don’t know if it is because trainees feel more comfortable and confident if they have the support of the students, and this in turn lets them focus on other techniques and aspects of the course, or if the CELTA course and tutors in general are often over-generous to trainees who can build good relationships with students.

Stephen Greene
http://www.tmenglish.org

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Stephen, for that interesting comment. I have to admit, that in the days when I examined DTEFLA/DELTA candidates, those first impressions did seem to be significant. What’s more, a teacher’s ability to establish rapport didn’t necessarily depend on their having taught the class before. What was really impressive was how some teachers, teaching a ‘borrowed’ class, were quickly able to interact with the students on an ‘authentic’ level, using their names, listening to them, and taking advantage of opportunities to lighten what was potentially a very tense situation.

15 01 2012
wezjohnson

A fascinating article, which – as usual – gets right to the heart of the issue.

I think that rapport is an incredibly important part of the learning process on a number of levels. If students are relaxed, if they feel like respected individuals, if they enjoy their relationship with their teacher, if they feel like they are part of welcoming, non-threatening community, then this is going to have a number of positive knock-on effects:

a) Low anxiety levels will lead to better acquisition (i.e. see Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis)

b) It will better encourage learners to take “ownership of the discourse” inside the classroom (which is of course a key aim of dogme) and make them less dependent on their teachers

c) Apropos of the above points, it will hopefully foster positive, long-term associations with education (and let’s not forget that long-term view of learning, which is so vital after all)

You’re right though, Scott, the concept of rapport is also a frustratingly elusive one. Given that it seems to be such an individual, existential part of a teacher’s whole personality and outlook, can it be taught to trainees? If it can, then surely lots of peer observations of teachers who enjoy good rapport with students is indispensable.

Another question occurs to me: is there a distinction to be made between short-term and long-term rapport? I rather think there is. While we might be able to wow our students with an introductory lesson, fresh and brimming with energy at the beginning of the year, keeping that rapport going – or even enhancing it – throughout the year/s is a much more arduous task (yet it this that is so essential). Personally, I’m always so exhausted after a week of teaching precisely because I try to put so much into maintaining that rapport.

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Wez (if I may!) for that perceptive comment. I’m particularly intrigued by the distinction between short-term vs long-term rapport, which makes me think that what I was describing above (in response to Stephen’s post) was the ability of certain teachers to establish short-term rapport (with classes they had borrowed) but whether this predicts continued rapport over the long haul – well, that’s another matter.

15 01 2012
wezjohnson

Tailor-made English says:

“As a tutor on numerous CELTA courses I can usually tell from the first or second Teaching Practice session”

I have to say, I really dispute that. When I undertook mine, I was fresh out of university, was in my early early twenties, had no experience whatsoever of speaking in public, was absolutely stressed beyond belief at being in a foreign country and risking all my savings on passing the course and obtaining a job immediately afterwards, and was still very much developing my adult personality. I can’t remember how my rapport was assessed during my observed lessons, but what I can say is that my rapport with students developed in tandem with the experience I gained. As I began to learn that I actually had the ability to control whole classes, could successfully deal with problems that arose, and even make people laugh, so my self-confidence shot up drastically and my rapport got much, much better. It was very much a symbiotic process.

If there is one thing that tends to get lost above all else under the stress of being observed and assessed (especially among more inexperienced teachers), it is that sense of rapport. I remain doubtful whether a teacher trainer can pronounce on whether someone enjoys a good rapport with students on the basis of a short observation, especially since it such a subjective, nebulous concept.

I think you can probably tell whether someone has terrible rapport though!

16 01 2012
Tailor-Made English

Hi Wezjohnson,

I was very careful to say ‘usually’ rather than ‘always’ because obviously there are exceptions. I also used ‘ok’ instead of ‘well’ as it goes without saying that rapport will only get you so far. I have seen people who started well end up barely passing with a ‘C’ grade because they failed to build upon their initial rapport. Likewise, I have seen numerous trainees build in confidence as they have progressed through the course.

However, I stand by my point that on a CELTA course, and knowing the conditions required by CELTA, if you can get on with a class, make them feel comfortable and confident, and more or less follow what your tutors suggest, you will be ‘ok’.

15 01 2012
Kathy

Another post that will stimulate a lot of contemplation over the coming week. Thank you!

I guess there can be different flavors of rapport, depending on what values and priorities are shared in the group. Maybe the key is whether respect is involved (going in both directions, as Mr. Harmer proposes).

If I respect the students’ investment of time and money and their need to answer to stakeholders (family, employer, other teachers) who. are interested in the outcome of the class, then I won’t get lost in the social dimension of what happens in the classroom. I will want to hold the students to this as well (not only toward each other, but toward me — I invest time and effort and have stakeholders as well). I think this mutual agreement on what our priorities are can be a major component of a constructive form of rapport.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the metacognition skills that I’d like to foster in my students (and in myself as a teacher). The ability to keep our purpose in mind while also immersing ourselves in the lives of the people around us … good teaching, not a substitute, in my opinion!

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kathy – yes, I agree that perhaps rapport is ‘context-sensitive’, and what creates a good rapport in one context (where learners may have one set of needs and expectations) may not translate easily to another context (where learners have different needs and expectations). On the other hand, I do think that there are teachers who have a kind of instinct for what will create a good working dynamic, and can walk into any class and both put the learners at ease and make them feel that they are in ‘good hands’. (These are skills that – incidentally – are grossly distorted in the way Hollywood depicts ‘charismatic’ teachers – I’m thinking of the Robin Williams style of teaching where rapport is embodied in wildly eccentric and unpredictable behaviours, such a tearing up books and leaping on to the desk).

16 01 2012
eslkathy

Hi Scott, I would love to be able to quickly register the dynamic of a particular group and establish rapport on Day One! Right now, it takes more than one lesson for me. (I suppose I wouldn’t be the best substitute teacher, hah!) I hope it’s a skill that can strengthen with experience.

My comment was with reference to your question about whether there is a danger that rapport can substitute for good teaching. I think there can be cases where both the teacher and the students (or at least the more dominant students in the group) have a rapport that doesn’t promote learning as well as it could. Maybe, for example, the teacher is also a part-time musician and discovers that there are several musicians in the class. The love of the topic may overwhelm other considerations (the needs and expectations of the quieter students, perhaps), even though the teacher and many of the students feel good after the lesson. The teacher may mistake “feel good” for good lesson.

Along those lines, I was wondering if you can have good rapport that doesn’t necessarily feel good (but is constructive). For example, if there’s anger or tension in the room (we bring whatever we are to the classroom, we’re not always sunshine and daisies!), can a group with good rapport accept that and maybe even make it a part of the learning?

.

15 01 2012
Rob

One of my favorites posts to memory, Scott. Well done again!

Our profession loves to analyze and pick apart so much of what happens within the classroom and inside the people in that classroom. Of course it’s often researchers (eg, applied linguists) who “inform our practice”, isn’t it? No complaint about that, per se, though I wonder if it might be better to let some things just be, without holding everything up under the microscope. Courses like the CELTA require us to bare our souls to an extent because we are made vulnerable, and we are under pressure to perform. Terms like ‘respect’, ‘rapport’, and ‘fair’ will always be squishy. Why not leave them that way, relying on something we can’t explain but know is healthy, human and natural to guide us?

Rob

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob – glad you liked this post. I agree that ‘rapport’ is slippery, ‘squishy’ even, but – as a teacher trainer (or educator or developer, or whatever) – I do feel the need to pin it down at times, since so much success in the classroom seems to depend upon it. Thus, when I observe a teacher who consistently fails to ‘gel’ with her students, I’d like to be able to give her some tips. For example, I find that generally the class dynamic is improved if the teacher (a) sits down – not all the time necessarily – but at certain appropriate stages in the lesson; (b) shares some experience with the students, e.g. using her own photos (while sitting down); and (c) invites the students to do the same and listens to them. I mean, really listens to them.

17 01 2012
Rob

Agreed, Scott, as far as giving tips about classroom management and such, and I know your primary interest is to help learners, teachers, and others in the field of ELT.

It’s helping someone to ‘really listen’ that seems less likely on a 4-week teacher training course. For more, please see my post below.

Cheers,
Rob

16 01 2012
Kevin Stein

Thanks for the post Scott.
I think the question of what it means to be authentic is a very real one. I know that when I teach, I am pretty much in the role of teacher, which usually comes with a certain amount of acting. So does this somehow conflict with being authentic?

One piece of advice I received (and took to heart) was to be honest with your students. Let them know when you think something (an activity, a class, whatever) didn’t go well and fess up to the role you played in why the class didn’t meet your expectations. Lately, if I teach a class using material or ideas I’ve taken from somewhere else, I bring along any of the reference materials which helped contribute to what I did in class. If students are interested, I share the materials with them after class. And if my implementation was faulty, I apologize and ask them for ideas on how to improve the class next time. The students can see how their feedback shapes the class and I usually see greater participation on the part of students who made the suggestions. So while I might be in a role during class, at least for the time when we are discussing how to improve the class, I try to let the students see me more in line with how I see myself, someone who is continuously struggling and learning just how to teach.

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Kevin. I hadn’t read it when I responded to David (above) on the question of honesty – and it looks like I might be disagreeing with you. However, I was interpreting David to mean ‘honesty as self-disclosure’, whereas your take on it is more like ‘honesty as sincerity’, i.e, not masking one’s true feelings, even negative ones, and that I think I would go along with.

Anyway, I like the way you are clearly sincere in eliciting feedback, and in taking it on board. Many teachers (I suspect) would not take this step, for fear of losing face, and I think it’s true, especially with some age groups, that there is a fine line between admitting that sometimes things don’t work out, on the one hand, and loss of authority as a teacher, on the other.

16 01 2012
Anthony Gaughan

Rapport is something that I’ve been thinking about lately with a view to teaching and teacher training.

I got some some end of course feedback from training teachers a while back who said that, of all their tutors, I was the most “authentic”, which they glossed to mean that I did not seem to change character, manner of speaking or behaviour whether I was in the classroom with them, working under their observation with language learners, or over a coffee in the kitchen. I was struck by this as I had never really thought about it before.

After this, I started to become more aware that this is a really big concern for many training teachers.

They feel a tension between who they are in the classroom and who they perceive to be their authentic self (whatever that means – they usually say something like “the real me”). When I ask them what they suppose is getting in the way of their “real me”, they invariably say either the cognitive effort of attending to their lesson plan procedure (natch) or the implementation of classroom technique (natch, again).

Thinking about it now, the only time I have really felt this dislocation between my teaching self and the real me was during my DELTA. I think I just suppressed this at the time (how very reflective of me!) but now it seems much more important to address.

I have tended to avoid using the term rapport up to now as I personally find it too loaded and often mistaken for being like a friend; I prefer to talk about a good working relationship (working in the sense of professional and functioning). This seemed more appropriate and attainable to me – after all, becoming “likeable” is a difficult trick to master, let alone teach, whereas becoming “workable” had to be easier, right?

But perhaps my preference strikes my trainees as clinical, thus encouraging them, directly or indirectly, to focus on the technical aspect of teaching rather than the basic human stuff that forges bonds (or at least builds bridges) between people.

If that’s true, I may need to reconsider how I talk about teaching so it reflects verbally what those trainees saw tacitly at work in their observations of me.

Thanks for being the catalyst for this, Scott and all who have contributed to this thread.

Anthony

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for another insightful (and refective!) comment, Anthony. What you said about your being ‘authentic’, i.e. ‘the real you’ in class reminded me of a comment a DTEFLA (now DELTA) assessor made about one of our candidates he had examined. In a phone conversation where we were supposed to negotiate a result, he confessed that he was considering a ‘fail’ because the teacher in question hadn’t really behaved like a teacher: “He just sort of talked to them”. Since this was very much the ‘style’ of teaching we had been nurturing I felt I should leap to the candidate’s defence, and had the presence of mind to ask, “Well, did the students talk back?” To which the answer was “Well, yes”. “And did the teacher give them corrective feedback?” “Yes”. “Well?”

He passed.

16 01 2012
Anthony Gaughan

That draws out the difference between teaching and teaching-like behaviour. I once wrote the following to my trainees on that distinction:


Teaching vs. Teaching-like behaviour
Teaching occurs when teachers behave in normal social ways which engage their learners in a way that promotes learning.
Examples include: asking genuine questions and listening to the answers; showing encouragement and providing feedback; assuming that their learners are intelligent, well-informed adults and that they can form their own hypotheses and opinions about language and any other topic given time, data and a reason.

Teaching-like behaviour occurs when teachers behave in ritualistic ways which do not engage students in a way that promotes learning.
Examples include: asking questions to which they and their students already know the answer; replying “not quite, can anyone help…?” to a student after they have made their point perfectly well but also made an error in the process; assuming that because their students are partially ignorant about how English works that they are also ignorant about how life and the world work.

This reflects my view of teaching, leaning heavily on both your statements about teaching and what I learnt while apprenticing under Dominic Braham in Berlin. Looking at it now, it seems like a rapport-building manifesto, and also gets at why the negotiation that you describe above (and which I have had as well) suggests that there is something askew in the systems in place for assessing teaching (at least, as I know it).

Thanks again.

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Anthony – that’s a nice distinction (between teaching and teaching-like behaviour). It reminded me of what I still think is the best rubric anyone’s yet devised for observing classroom life – Earl Stevick’s afterword to Memory, Meaning, and Method (1976) called ‘What I hope for in a classroom’, the sixth criterion being:

One of the first things I notice is whether the teacher seems relaxed and matter-of-fact in voice and in manner, giving information about the appropriateness or correctness of what the students do, rather than criticising or praising them.

He goes on to contrast this with what you might call ‘teaching-like behaviour':

The teacher does not, either by word or by unspoken message, say to students, ‘Now always remember…,’ ‘You shouldn’t have forgotten…,’ ‘You are a good/poor student,’ or ‘Now try to do this so that I may judge you on it.’

(p. 160)

16 01 2012
Scott C

Thanks all,

I really believe that developing a good rapport/working relationship with your class means you have to open up to your students as much as you expect them to open up to you. How many times have you asked students or have coursebook materials asked them to talk about:

*the most embarrassing moment of their lives
*their family
*their hobbies
*their hopes for the future…the list of personal details goes on and on.

Yet, I have come across numerous teachers who will gladly tell me that they don’t like sharing that kind of information with students. Can you really build a relationship if you don’t give as much as you expect in return? And can you build a successful language learning environment in a place where people do not want to share/talk?

Scott C.

16 01 2012
Anthony Gaughan

That reminds me of something else I was thinking after reading this post.

People (thinking here mainly of children but probably also adults) can learn languages under the most horrendous of circumstances; but for teaching to contribute positively to this process, rapport almost certainly needs to be present. If it isn’t, learning will proceed only in spite of the interpersonal deficit between the teacher and the learner.

And as you say, rapport is a kind of web fabricated from countless strands of trust squeezed out of meaningful communicative exchange. It is across this web that the learner (and the teacher, incidentally) need to metaphorically scramble so that they can interact and strengthen the weave of the web, so to speak. In doing so, they not only consolidate rapport; they also consolidate language and learning.

So while learning may not require the trust required to fashion a safety net and venture out onto it, teaching does.At least, that’s the way I see it (I think).

16 01 2012
carlaarena

I do feel that being yourself and, at the same time, being professional are part of what can make you an excellent teacher, not just average. If you build good rapport with your students by being open, trustful, and competent, then, in return, what you get is empathy and a positive classroom energy in which students are willing to follow your lead and you’re always learning. When you have this so-called rapport, students feel more at ease with their learning process, and most get ready to take more risks and take a step further in their learning process.

16 01 2012
wezjohnson

The connection between rapport and risk-taking is well-spotted. I agree with you that when learners feel relaxed, happy, and secure as individuals they are more likely to take risks with language production.

Another feature that I think good rapport engenders (which I should have mentioned in my above comment) is intrinsic motivation i.e. pursuing language tasks for their own sake and because it is enjoyable to do so. This also feeds back into what I said above about rapport being important for fostering long-term positive associations with language learning (hopefully nurturing self-confident and autonomous learners).

By all accounts, it seems (from all the posts here so far) that rapport really is an invaluable feature of learning. Does anybody out there actually think rapport is not all it’s cracked up to be?

16 01 2012
Rob

I’ve enjoyed reading the emergent comments here, Scott. Thanks again for eliciting them with your fine post! ;-)

If I can share just a few observations that come to mind while reading:

One of my CELTA trainers once said he’d rather students like him as a teacher (professional) first, then decide whether they like him as a person. My fellow teachers had different reactions, some claiming that students should first and foremost like us as people because that relationship (personal) meant they’d be more apt to learn from/with us.

A tutor on my Master’s program did research into whether teachers view themselves as those who teach language or those who teach people (my wording, not hers). The data produced a nearly even split between the two groups.

I’ve come to believe that such dichotomies make for heated debate but are otherwise less than helpful. It seems that when we ask learners, in general, they want a teacher who uses head and heart simultaneously, a person who is neither too cerebral nor too mawkish. Of course, individual preferences and cultural expectations vary – something worth discussing?

Rapport requires us to meet learners where they’re at; that we not talk over their heads or look down upon them just as we don’t patronize or unduly praise them. Listening (really listening, as you say) is indeed one of the best ways to go about knowing a group or an individual.

Rapport, again, appears to involve the right combination of head and heart: knowledge of methods and techniques along with practice in how to effectively employ them, as well as a nose for personalities and how to engage people from different walks of life.

I don’t think true (natural, authentic, honest) teachers choose to teach, it chooses them. So while the ‘head stuff’ (eg, classroom management) can be learned in training, the ‘heart part’ can’t really be learned the same way. I’m fascinated by the alchemy of head and heart, by the interplay between these two essential elements in every lesson. I wonder if that dynamic doesn’t determine the outcome of both short-term and long-term rapport.

Rob

16 01 2012
wezjohnson

Another thought occurs to me: is the concept of rapport a specifically Western – even left-wing – construct? Is it seen to be of such value in places such as Japan and South Korea I wonder?

16 01 2012
Scott C

I teach lots of Japanese and Sth Korean students so I’ll ask!

In regards to the head vs. heart debate, I can think of a couple of teachers I know who achieved fantastic results on an MA Applied Linguistics (TESOL) yet always had difficulties in class with rapport (ie. students often complaining about the class being ‘boring’ or not ‘liking’ the teacher). As mentioned above, rapport is obviously something that’s difficult to teach, especially when the MA Applied Linguistics mentioned above in Australia has no observed teaching practice.

As an aside Scott, does the program you teach on include teaching practice, like the DELTA?

Cheers,
Scott C.

16 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Scott – yes the MA TESOL includes what’s called a practicum, which can be done at a distance using video recordings of lessons, as part of a cycle of action and reflection in which the whole group participates.

16 01 2012
Almagro

Do we establish parallel states of rapport regardless of teaching our L1 or our L2?

16 01 2012
Tailor-Made English

Hi Almargo,

The only experience I have of teaching an L2 is doing the foriegn language component of a CELTA course. It is only 2 classes and very artificial, but one of my aims is to show that you can have rapport even when dealing with a totally unknown language. Whether I could carry this off over a prolonged course, though, I very much doubt.

I would be intrigued to find out if people think they have the same levels/type of rapprt when teaching different languages.

Stephen Greene
http://www.tmenglish.org

17 01 2012
Almagro

Thanks, Stephen.
Comparing ways of conceptualizing rapport, I purposefully used the term “states” and you rewrote it as “levels” or “types”. Interesting, huh?

17 01 2012
Scott C

I spoke to a few Korean/Japanese students today and to them, “their relationship with their teacher” seems just as important as it is for other students. From my own experience, I’ve never really noticed much of a difference in class. In my past experience as a DoS, students from all nationalities will complain about their teacher if they don’t get on well with them. In fact, from my own observation, some Asians will complain more about this and less about “teaching” matters. However, if they say that their class is “boring”, is this because of a bad relationship with their teacher or other issues, eg. wrong level, bad materials, bad relationships with other students..?

Thanks for the reply Scott.

Scott C.

17 01 2012
Almagro

If rapport, motivation and the more “human” learner variables are the big deal-makers, how come we end up splitting methodological hairs and complete masters degrees in ELT?

18 01 2012
Scott C

It seems that the issue of student-teacher relationships is an issue affected by budgets in state schools in Victoria, Australia.

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/focusing-on-the-bottom-line-extracts-an-educational-price-20120117-1q49h.html

20 01 2012
jeremyharmer

I have been worrying about this post since I read it a few days ago. Well, not worrying exactly, but re-thinking an area that I have (as your post makes clear) thought about a lot about in the past. I am (a bit like Jim Scrivener) somewhat perplexed by the whole issue! Have always been. For example:

1 Does teacher authenticity enhance rapport if/when a student doesn’t especially like that particular authentic teacher? In other words can rapport exist outside the personal likes and dislikes of and about the people in the room? (It was/is partly in response to that question that I have ended up stressing teacher behaviour – professionalism, respect etc – as a major part of (good) rapport creation.

2 I wonder how we would view a lesson if we first read transcripts and then watched a film of it. The latter experience can blind us (because of an obvious rapport) to any possible shortcomings in what is going on?

Nothing is certain….

Jeremy

21 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Jeremy asks “Does teacher authenticity enhance rapport if/when a student doesn’t especially like that particular authentic teacher?”

I think we have to accept (although sometimes it’s hard) that rapport is ultimately a question of what would be called nowadays ‘chemistry’, and that – just as in ‘real life’ – however wonderful you might be for your friends, there are some people out there who can’t stand you! Witness course evaluations: 14 out of 15 say you were the best teacher they’ve ever had, EVER, while there’s always one who says you were lazy, ignorant, mean-spirited and vain!

20 01 2012
P!erre

I think one important concept in the understanding of rapport is the idea of ‘mutual understanding’ between teachers and students. A good measure of a teacher’s rapport would be the extent to which one is able to read their context and adjust elements of their teacher persona and their pedagogy to ‘fit’ in with it. For example, the personality you’d adopt and techniques you’d use with your class of 5-year-olds would be different than how you’d approach your business English class. ‘Good’ rapport would look totally different in these two scenarios.

I used to think about this a lot when I was working for Shane English School in Japan some years ago. I’d have to move quickly from crawling on the floor with kindergarten students, to more serious contexts with businessmen, to casual and cool with university students, to… At times when I wasn’t able to ‘chime in’ with my new context quick enough, I realized that what I’d lost was rapport – my students didn’t understand me and, in that instance, I’d failed to understand them.

As far as authenticity goes, well… it all depends if you’re in your element or not. Not everyone likes crawling around, singing songs and playing with plastic fruit, but in some cases rapport depends on it. I think I’ve traded off some authenticity at times for the sake of rapport…

22 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Pierre, or the comment. Achieving a good rapport with young learners must be a challenge, given that they view anyone over 30 as being ‘very old’, and hence unlikely to share any interests. Likewise, it seems hard (to me at least) to crank up interest in the kinds of things that concern 8-year-olds. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the best teachers of children may be parents themselves. (Or is that a fallacy?)

On the other hand I did have a class of teens once who I found endlessly fascinating, not just because of who they were, but because of the insights they offered into a whole other world – or worlds.They also made me laugh – constantly. I think my interest showed, because (I like to think) there was a very good rapport.

21 01 2012
Michael Witcomb

Jeremy talks about teacher behaviour – respect, professionalism etc. – and I do feel that this is core to the success of rapport building. Does student perception of what makes for a professional teacher alter across cultural borders, I wonder? In response to Almagro’s thoughts, I would say that completing a dip TESOL amongst other things, raised my consciousness about student expectations (teacher, classroom practices) and it was certainly a valuable, reflective process. For an Englishman teaching in China, this is very important, I think. As a teaching team, we deliver classes for one or two academic years and, for many of our students, we are the first non-Chinese teachers they meet. Our personal styles and methodologies might take a bit of getting used to and I have certainly started to sacrifice a little ‘authenticity’, especially at the beginning of the academic year with new classes, in order that I meet the students’ expectations. This inevitably alters as time goes by and but a few moments to think about what lenses they are looking at me through definitely helps.

21 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Michael, for commenting. You’re right, I think, that riding roughshod over students’ expectations of how you should ‘perform the role’ of teacher is not going to be conducive to establishing a good rapport (despite the Hollywood portrayal of the charismatic teacher as being a maverick free spirit!). That’s to say, mutual respect may be a precondition for rapport. But I’m not sure it’s the same thing. Rapport, to me, connotes mutuality, yes, but mutual interest as much as mutual respect.

In his book ‘Learning Teaching’ Jim Scrivener makes the point that – when we think back about teachers who made a strong postiive impression on us in our youth – we remember less the things that they actually did, and more the way that they were. To me this included being genuinely interested in you as a person, and conspicuously concerned for your educational well-being.

21 01 2012
Nati

I am currently taking DELTA 2 and today one of my classmates wrote that to develop a good rapport you have to always be happy and if you are not you should fake it. At the moment, I totally agreed with her but now that I’ve read this and started thinking about it, I think we need to be honest with our ss so if one day they can tell we are not alright and they approach us and say something like: how r things going today, u don’t look so well? we could very well say: well, it’s been a tough week, thank you for asking. As you’ve pointed out above teacher authenticity is important, and maybe if we show our ss that we are not robots and that sometimes we have good days and bad days or if we share with them how we are doing we may enhance the chemistry you’ve mentioned above. Thanks very much for this discussing every one, it opened a window to me and I’m going to share it with my DELTA classmates!
Cheers!

22 01 2012
Michael Witcomb

An interesting discussion indeed and, Scott, I’m afraid I have witnessed a couple of ‘dead poets’ lessons delivered to classes of slightly bemused students …

I see what you mean about interest and respect and, if you’ll forgive the China-centric generalizations, there were a couple of things that passed over my radar recently that I thought might also be worth throwing into the mix. I heard a news item yesterday about Chinese migrant workers from a long-serving asia correspondent from England who reflected that, compared to a case study from ten years ago, the everyday interests of a young guy he interviewed were significantly more aligned to his own. Also, amongst other bits and pieces, I’ve been reading ‘The Geography of Thought’ by Richard Nisbett which addresses comparative east-west psychologies. As globalization continues to homogenize our societies, I’m starting to wonder about the distinction between content and the framing of it. Nothing is better than time spent with individuals and finding out about their specific needs and interests of course, but, as a broad sweep, I’m interested to try out different spins on speaking tasks, checking questions and so on to see if anticipating a slightly different take on the world demonstrates empathy and implicit interest and thereby develops rapport.

22 01 2012
Karen Siemens

Do you think that sometimes the lofty position accorded pedagogy in the mind of the teacher works against the development of rapport?

You know, maybe unconsciously, they have an idea of teaching and teachers as professionals that causes them to feel that they know what is best and everyone ought to listen up.

I teach adults and didn’t start teaching until I was 53 so I’ve spent many more years as a student and a parent of students than as a teacher. This attitude has always mystified me.

25 01 2012
James Quartley

Nati, I think that the ability to ‘open up’ is dictated by the formality of the relationship and the expectations of the learners. My teaching contexts put me in contact with business people, who expect a level of professionalism beyond the personal; and university students who are, invariably, disinterested in anything other than that needed to pass the exam. However, I do agree that in some circumstances ‘being real’ is possible and useful.

Karen, I recognise your observations of teachers, but I don’t think that the inability to adapt or learn is restricted to them alone. ‘The old dog who can’t learn new tricks’ is prevalent in most walks of life. The threat of changes to established knowledge, methods or practice and the challenges it represents should not be underestimated.
The difficulty with pedagogy is that it can resist the scientific verification of other subjects. Just think of the published views and discussions on second language acquisition, for example. There are many wonderful ideas, but not a huge amount of supporting data for one position or, some would argue, a coherent picture of what processes are actually at work. In the absence of a defining theory, some may cling to pedagogic ideas in order to base their teaching philosophy on something, or to offer a justification for their practice (and, perhaps, a recognisable structure for learners). The danger is when the method takes over and is applied ‘religiously’ in the practice.
I like the oblivion of post-methodology, or the ‘digging of shallow holes’ as one ex-colleague once called it.

29 01 2012
Steve Fukuda

Myself being an online student feel there is seems to be more rapport because of the absence of barriers such as psychological factors that are inevitable in face-to-face contact. For instance, on-line, even though you might get offended at first, you have time to figure out that the comment was constructive criticism to better yourself and you have time to read behind the lines.

As to building rapport, I think the most important thing that some instructors seem to forget is actually simple things such as remembering names and knowing where they come from which a simple needs analysis will suffice. I know sometimes teachers at the university level think it weird to do with adult learners, but that sense of belongingness is what students need. It is great to see the smiles when people find that they have the same interest or background as someone. We mustn’t forget, as Carl Rogers said, it is human nature to get to know one another through authentic communication.

8 01 2013
July

Hi Scott, I think formal authority and personal authority are different phases that a teacher passes to establish rapport. I’d like to know is that which phase is more important for teacher-student relationship. I’ll be really happy if u reply me.

9 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

I agree that rapport depends in part on the authority of the teacher, and in part on the personality of the teacher, and the ideal teacher (I’m guessing) combines aspects of both. As you suggest, initially teachers may rely on their authority, before allowing their full personality to emerge, although I’ve seen many novice teachers who compensate for lack of authority (= knowledge, experience) by just trying to be ‘ a regular guy’. Hope this helps.

9 05 2013
Svetlana

Dear Scott,

just a couple of thoughts on what rapport is (this notion was recently mentioned and discussed in the post Teacher knowledge). Rapport is still such a mysterious puzzling word. There is an expression in English — read smb’s mind (e.g. “You are reading my mind” stands for ” That’s exactly what I wanted to say”. ) Then probably rapport could be defined as ” a teacher’s ability to read the student’s mind in order to verbalise his communicative intention and put it in the proper linguistic form. That is the ability a teacher needs to possess while trying to stimulate communication by employing tasks and supplying the language at the very moment when the student feels “hungry” for it. In a learner-centred classroom good rapport is a must, but you can do without it while following a PPP sequence. Besides, “reading one’s mind” can be very tiring, exhausting, emotionally devastating. Do you feel the same?
Recently I have come across the notion of ‘mirror neurons” which, as some scientists propose, might be involved in feelings of empathy, while others think these cells may play central roles in human abilities like speech (quoted from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/11/06/whats-so-special-about-mirror-neurons). Wouldn’t it be logical to suggest that a proper amount of these mirror neurons should be a pre-requisite for screening the best candidates to become teachers ? :-) Without having a proper rapport with your class doesn’t it feel like teaching a lesson to a wall or a stone or a mountain? You are doing your job, explaining something, giving examples, modelling, but all in all just pretending to be working.

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