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Home » Reflections » Useful tips on how to build rapport when you’re not John Keating from Dead Poets Society

Useful tips on how to build rapport when you’re not John Keating from Dead Poets Society


“ Consciously, we teach what we know; unconsciously, we teach who we are.” Hamacheck (1999, p.209)

I recently watched a video on social media that blew my mind and got me thinking of how important establishing rapport with our students is. You might have seen the video of a teacher in the US who uses a personalized greeting with each student before they get in the classroom ( if you haven’t watched it yet, it’s here).

I would have loved to be one of his students. He truly shows he cares about his pupils.

He goes on and says “we pride ourselves on high expectations and in meaningful relationships.It’s more than a handshake, it’s about impacting the student in the most positive way.

Never underrate the values of relationships, with anyone.

So what can a gesture like that teach us? Do we have to teach a morning routine and remember 40 different greetings by heart to build rapport with students?

My answer would be “not quite”( obviously), but there’s much more that lies in that gesture, and I think that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Why rapport matters

For the last 5 years, all my experience has revolved around 1:1 lessons and ultimately, I gauge the effectiveness of my lessons most by the rapport I’ve built with my students.

No, I don’t think myself as the know-it-all but, after all these years, I know myself and my teaching style well enough to evaluate why I get so many word-of-mouth referrals and the return of former students.

Mind you, I’m no Pollyanna and I don’t get on with every and any student.

Last year I had a private student for 3 or 4 months. There was nothing wrong with her, except that there was no bond between us. She didn’t laugh or smile, she didn’t want to engage in small talk at the beginning of the lesson, she didn’t let me get to know her better. Teaching her became a drag, and I eventually quit and recommended another teacher to her because I didn’t want to force the teacher-student relationship.

The magic either happens or it doesn’t. It may take some time, but it has to happen at some point.

Is rapport an essential component of good teaching, or is there a danger that it substitutes for good teaching?

…asked Scott Thornbury in his blog. I’ll be gutsy to answer that rapport is an essential component of good teaching – at least it works for me. I’m not the most knowledgeable or skilled teacher, but I pride myself on the positive relationships I’ve collected with my current and former students.

For me, the keys words here are care and enthusiasm.

You know the saying “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I truly believe in that.

Showing  the importance of our own identities as teachers

Our identities show what we value and how we can relate these characteristics to our professional behaviour. Also, can we separate our personal and professional self?

Once I asked my student how she dealt with meetings at work ( she is a sweet and outspoken kind of person) and she replied “the same way I deal with friends in a social gathering…I’m not a different person. I find it funny when people say they can separate their professional and personal lives, I can’t”. That happened over a year ago, and it got stuck in my mind.

So here are my tips on how I build rapport with my students, I think they may work for you. Bear in mind they’re related to one-to-one teaching. However, I believe most of the ideas can be applied to big groups as well.


Source:  ABC News Go

How can we foster that special bond with our students?

1.Be genuine and honest with yourself and your student

Show enthusiasm, passion and model behaviour. Have your students’ best interests at heart.  Thoughtful teachers are genuinely interested in their students’ lives, opinions and especially their feelings about how things are going in the course. Have you noticed there’s a change in tone and some excitement that comes through in the way we speak?

I love travelling, and I see my students’ excitement when they come back from a long holiday or trip abroad. As I am genuinely interested ( and curious, of course!), I make sure to ask and let them tell me all about their trips, sometimes the first lesson after they arrive from a trip is just…about the trip! They usually show me photos, tell me about the awkward or funny moments, how they got on with speaking English.

2. Truly listen to your student and build empathy

Respond to them and try to go beyond “surface mistakes”. Remember things they have said and cross refer students’ contributions can show how much you care beyond classroom observation.

What does their body language say? How about their tone of voice? Do they fidget?

3. Remember their names

That’s a no-brainer, but it’s so important! Also, make sure you know how to pronounce their names in case they sound a little different from what you are used to. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been called “Celia,” “Patricia” or “Leticia.” Or the worst…”hey” without being addressed by my name. Annoying!

4. Show respect and validate your students’ opinions

This is a two-way street. There’s no room for judgemental messages or opinions from us. Say, do they have a different point of view from you about Donald Trump? Well, deal with it.

I love tackling PARNIPS issues and showing respect is my number one rule for creating an unthreatening and supportive environment amongst my students.

5. Focus on their goals and be structured

Choose your materials carefully and enjoy them. Show professionalism, be well-organised and well-prepared.I find it particularly important to communicate high expectations with students. If students perceive they can complete a task successfully, they are more likely to continue on task. After all, demonstrating caring actions spurred students to greater personal and academic accomplishments.

6. Get to know your student beyond their names and jobs

Try your best personalise to a context in their lives for the language. Statements such as, “Hi, Daniel, are you okay?” “How was your weekend?” and “Are you planning to do anything exciting on the weekend/ holiday?” reflect the teacher’s sincere interest in their learners. Ask how- when-why questions.

These positive interpersonal behaviours, where teachers spend time talking to students about their personal or social issues, promote a sense of belonging and strengthen a bond between teacher and student.

7. Use social media to lower pressure and engage them outside lesson times

I encourage them to widely use Whatsapp or Facebook, and I have recently found out Edmodo for assigning tasks. If I find an interesting post or video which relates to my students’ interests, I usually tag them with a statement such as ” I saw this video and thought of you. This dog is as cute as yours” ( say your student is a dog lover and usually tells you stories of their dog’s adventures).

8. Talk about yourself, chitchat ( but not too much!)

Show imperfections, make mistakes, let them teach you what they know best. Unlike some teachers, I don’t think you will get into hot water for blurring the boundaries of the teacher-student relationship. As long as you don’t bore or spend a long time talking about yourself and your life, I see chitchatting as a positive element. Most of my students are curious about my life, I’m sure yours are curious as well.

Once my student told me she was going to the US and she was excited about buying some brand make up. As a makeup lover myself, I gave some recommendations to her – she loved it and jotted down everything. In the end, she asked me if I wanted her to bring any makeup item. So now I’ve got a lovely new concealer and found out we share the same interest.

9. Praise genuinely

Give students the chance to prepare or just think before speaking. Make them aware of what they do well. Give clear and positive feedback.

10. Personalise the lesson but don’t be invasive

Allow them to share what they want to share, but do not expose your students. Some topics may be sensitive, and we should be aware of them. Allow them to tell or weave stories, talk about their dreams. Address their concerns during class time.

11. Use humour and smile 

I always greet my students with a smile to show how happy I am to be there with them. Simple but effective. Similarly, I find that a good sense of humour can open doors to your students’ hearts and allow your learners to relax and joke around a bit. Wouldn’t you feel a bit intimidated if your teacher was serious during 60 minutes? I know I would.

How about you? How do you build rapport with your students?


  1. I loved it! I’ve been tried with my students lately.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe we have lots in common when it comes to creating rapport. I consider myself an enthusiastic person who normally gets along well with students from day 1. It’s crucial for me to cause a great first impression and make them comfortable around me and in their classroom environment. I usually start my very first lesson of the semester with a True or False activity about my life (with very funny and surprising facts that they normally don’t guess) and I do the same with the students. It sets the tone for the rest of the semester.

    Here’s the list I follow on the first day of class:

    1. Show them who you are, what you are passionate about, the cool things you can do to let them know they have an awesome teacher;
    2. Don’t judge them. Have as little background information on them as possible, at least for the first week before the inevitable labels come;
    3. Learn and memorize their names and show them you care about them;
    4. Let them tell you who they are and what makes them tick;
    5. Set the bar high and tell them you’ll help them achieve their potential;
    6. Rules and restrictions are not needed now, show them later as things happen;
    7. Be friendly;
    8. Have fun!

    Hope I could help with some tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark Fryer says:

    Really interesting article and ideas. Thanks. I’ve been doing some research on rapport over the last few years. I asked students (in a questionnaire) for examples of things that made the classroom a positive experience. Their responses were then categorised three ways, based on the teacher’s ability to influence the situation.

    A. Controllable with classroom strategy and activities
    B. Controllable through a change in attitude and approach
    C. Uncontrollable (character based) or unspecific

    The topics listed below come from the controllable categories (A & B). They are selected as observable examples of the existence of rapport in the class. I am hoping to include them in an observation tool that will allow me to enter the beginning 15 minutes of a lesson and gauge the levels of rapport.

    1. Greeting students at the beginning of the lesson

    2. Opportunity to settle in before work begins with a preamble (story, “warmer game” etc.)

    3. Evidence of students’ names being used

    4. An atmosphere of:

    a. Ease (questions and contributions by a majority of students)
    b. Apparent flexibility to leave the subject matter and return
    c. Fun (laughter, stories told by teacher and other students)
    d. Respect (understanding, empathy, desire to work together: T & S/ S & S)
    e. Shared interaction between class, individuals and small groups (not just one way!)
    f. Positivity (about the students, the subject and the school)
    g. Student willingness to work (little or no coercion needed)

    5. Positive responses to disruption

    It’s a really interesting area and there has not been a lot of published material about it. I agree completely about the importance of rapport building. If the students want to be in the classroom, and are there in spirit as well as body, we have a much greater chance of teaching them something meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark Fryer says:

    Thanks Cecilia. I’ll drop you a line.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] 2. Cecilia Nobre’s Useful tips on how to build rapport when you’re not John Keating from Dead Poets Society […]

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] more tips on how to increase your rapport in a 10-minute webinar. Cecilia Nobre offers useful tips on how to build rapport when you’re not John Keating from Dead Poet’s Societ… (though he does many of those things […]

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:
    Excellent insights for all of us!

    Liked by 1 person

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