building rapport in the esl classroom

Think back to some of your favorite classes in high school and college. What made them so memorable and enjoyable? I remember Art Studio 4D like it was yesterday: for our final project, we had to exhibit an alternate persona for 48 hours. The final exam happened during those 48 hours, and the lecture hall was full of freshman art students howling like animals, mumbling to themselves, and creating all kinds of havoc.

Yet what I remember most about the class was not that crazy final exam, it was the professor. He was hip and funny, but most importantly he cared about his students and he went out of his way to connect with us.

As an ESL teacher, it is essential to connect with your students because they need to feel safe in order to overcome their fear of speaking in English. Here are some simple, fail-proof ways to build rapport in the ESL classroom. (And no, you don’t have to encourage your students to dress up like animals.)

1. Learn their names.

This can be an easy task or a daunting one, depending on your teaching situation. When I taught ESL as a volunteer in Chile, I saw about three hundred students a week. I remember taking attendance for the first time and looking at the class roster of complicated and unfamiliar Spanish names (Juan Jose Gonzalez Santos, for example) and thinking, “Yeah right. I will never learn these names.

I’m a visual learner, so I had each student illustrate their own name tag and place it on their desk. After a few weeks, I had them all down. I would see a student in the hallway and immediately picture the way they drew their name on the tag.

Remembering names takes a little extra effort on your part, but it can be done. And it shows to the students that you really care. So do what you have to do, but learn those names!

2. Enjoy yourself.

This may seem painfully obvious but it is incredibly easy to forget once you are in front of the classroom. Just remember that if you aren’t enjoying your class, your students definitely won’t either.

As the teacher, you set the tone for the day, and your energy is contagious. So remember to smile, plan lessons you love, and teach with joy.

3. Practice patience.

I thought I was a patient person until my first day in the ESL classroom. Patience takes on a whole new meaning when you are standing on your feet all day, listening to student after student botch the pronunciation of “thirteen.” Yet, if you want your students to feel safe and comfortable trying to pronounce new and foreign sounds in front of the whole classroom, you need to be patient. Give them plenty of time to get it wrong, over and over again, until they get it right.

Nothing is worse than trying to get something right and feeling rushed by your impatient teacher! So don’t be that teacher. Practice patience!

4. Learn at least one thing about each student’s personal life.

If you really want your students to feel that you care about them you have to, ahem, actually care about them. A great way to show this is to be interested in what your students do outside of the classroom. Say that Sonia mentions that she likes to go to the movies during an icebreaker. Remember that. Write it down if you have to, and ask Sonia if she has seen any good movies the next time you see her. Your interest will go a long way to building trust with your students and you will naturally start to care about them, which is pretty rewarding.

5. Share a couple of things from your personal life.

Getting personal goes both ways. Students love to know who is teaching them, so don’t be afraid to share about your weekend camping trip or your favorite kind of music during your next lesson. This makes you a real human rather than an ESL-bot and it gives your students something to identify with. I used to share lots of funny stories about my adventures learning Spanish and getting into trouble with certain pronunciation slips. Showing vulnerability puts your students at ease and helps them to feel more comfortable to make mistakes in front of you.

So there you have it. Five simple ways to be the teacher that your students will remember ten years from now when somebody asks them about their favorite classes. The guaranteed side effect here is that you yourself will have fun and enjoy your class as much as they do. And that is never a bad thing. Happy teaching!