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
- 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.
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.