4 secrets to building rapport with students (even when it’s hard to connect)

Richard Rogers

We all know that building rapport is critical for strong classroom management. But how exactly do you DO that? Today, I’ve invited teacher Richard James Rogers (author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets That All High School Teachers Need to Know) to share strategies and examples from real classrooms. 

Have you ever noticed that some teachers just seem to be admired and well-liked by their students? Effortlessly, they seem to be able to control behavior and foster a working relationship with their students. These teachers use their personalities to effectively generate rapport.

Put simply, rapport is a relationship in which the student enjoys working productively with the teacher. It is the single most important facet of a successful educator, and its effectiveness depends upon the character of the teacher and how efficiently this is employed in all interactions with his or her students. Rapport feeds into every other aspect of teaching and learning and, if you master it, your students will benefit immensely and you will find your work as a teacher more rewarding than ever before!

the secret to effective classroom management

#1 Take a genuine interest in the ‘whole life’ of your students

Charlene was an experienced and well-liked teacher of secondary science. She got on very well with her students, and parents would often mention that they appreciated her ‘special attention’ to their children. She was liked by her colleagues, and she enjoyed her work. One day, her physics student came to school with a broken arm in a plaster cast. John, a keen gymnast, mentioned that he had fallen very hard in a training session two days ago. Charlene immediately knew that this was golden information for her lesson planning.

In John’s next physics lesson, Charlene was teaching the class about forces and motion. As John entered the class, she presented him with a starter activity revolving around the forces that act upon a gymnast when taking off and landing on a springboard. She also asked John how he was doing (and she was sincere in asking). He said he was healing well, and Ms. Charlene mentioned that, “We can use your experience to help the class today, would that be okay?” John said sure.

After completing and peer assessing the starter worksheet, Ms. Charlene asked John to tell the class what had happened to his arm. He gladly told his story, and Ms. Charlene asked for everyone to clap after he had finished. Using humor and good teaching practice, she said, “So using John’s story to help you, what do you think one of today’s objectives could be?”

One student mentioned a funny comment about how you should always land on your feet and not on your arm like John did, which Ms. Charlene responded to with a smile and a giggle. After this, and with some prompting from their teacher, some students spoke about the importance of gravity in determining the force upon impact, and the speed of free fall. At the end of a very interesting and varied lesson, Charlene allowed her students the opportunity to sign John’s plaster cast, if they hadn’t done so already.

Let’s examine what Charlene did that made this lesson (and her rapport/relationship with students) so special:

  • used the hobby of her student to generate a lesson activity (the starter worksheet)
  • showed a sincere care and concern for her student
  • was genuinely interested in the whole life of her student (as she was with all of her students)
  • used student ‘expertise’ to enhance the lesson content (she asks John to talk to the class about what had happened)
  • was tasteful in her humor, and made sure that John is happy to share his story before she asks him to do so.
  • rewarded the class for their good work by allowing them a few minutes at the end to sign John’s plaster cast; not only did this subtly reveal her caring and ‘human’ nature, but it also bonded the class together as a whole

#2 Use humor to enhance learning

Humor can be a tricky skill to master, as it’s often difficult to gauge whether or not the students will respond to it positively. It takes experience experimentation to become efficient at using humor within your lessons.

Some effective ways to use humor in the classroom include:

  1. Tackle disruption with light-hearted comments that make the students aware that they need to be on task, without being antagonistic. Use knowledge about student interests if possible (e.g. “Craig, I know you must be talking about the next flying kick you’re going to in karate class, but if you could please listen to me at this moment then I would be most grateful”, or “Simone, I’m sure that Diane already knows what a great dancer you are, so if you could please focus on the task in hand, then that would be great”). Remember, students may respond to this so be ready to be light-hearted and direct the conversation back to the task at hand.
  2. During group activities or short tasks, you can play some silly music (not too loud) to lighten the mood. Start by saying something like, “I’m going to play everyone’s favorite music,” and then proceed to play something funny and upbeat (e.g. like a cartoon theme tune)
  3. You can sing to your students. That’s right, I did just say that! You can make up silly songs about whatever the lesson content is and sing or rap them to the class. You can also get the students to do this too.
  4. Use your whole physiology to generate laughter. Use changes in your voice, funny personal stories, exaggerated facial expressions, dance moves and anything you can think of to raise a smile and a giggle.
  5. Use learning games to make the atmosphere more happy and relaxed. Have students formulate silly phrases, or use vocabulary games (e.g. by writing key vocabulary on the whiteboard and getting the students to answer your questions by ‘splatting’ the correct word with their hands.)
  6. Make up rhymes, acronyms, and funny mnemonics. For example, MR FAB is an acronym for Mammals, Reptiles, Fish, Amphibians and Birds (vertebrate animals) and “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” is a mnemonic for “North, East, South, West”. Even better: get the kids to make up their own!

#3 Praise and encourage students on a regular basis

Every teacher knows to do this, but we don’t always know how to do it effectively. Here are some tips:

  • Praise only works if it is sincere. Flattery loses its effect over time. Always find something genuine and meaningful to praise.
  • Use a variety of methods to praise and encourage your students. Comments written on their work, verbal praise in the classroom, multimedia-based praise (e.g. comments on blogs, stars on student-generated websites, ‘stickers’ in learning management system (LMS) forums, etc.) and informal chats outside of the classroom are all great ways to make your students feel appreciated and important.
  • If a student produces a really good piece of work, make sure you show it to the class as a good example to follow. This will make the student feel extra special, and will encourage both the student and the rest of the class to work even harder. If your school has an LMS, a novel way to do this would be to scan the work and post it on your subject page. If not, simply projecting the work onto your interactive whiteboard or just holding it up in front of the class will have an uplifting effect on that student.
  • When you do have to reprimand or correct your students, make sure you praise them for something first. Every human being, no matter who they are, receives criticism much better if their inhibitions are overcome with praise first. A good rule is the “two stars and a wish rule”, where you praise two things that went well, and you suggest a target to make this work ‘even better.’

#4 Get involved in the extra-curricular life of your school

A great way to come across as an approachable, fun, and well-rounded teacher is to run an extra-curricular activity that your students can benefit from. While this will add to your planning time, it’s well worth it because you’ll start to work with your students in a different way than you would in conventional classes, and you’ll even be able to engage with students that you don’t teach. Good ECA’s to offer include:

  • Sports: The competitive and team-building elements of many sports almost forces you to build up a good rapport with your students.
  • Languages not offered at school: These kind of clubs often involve paired conversation and mentoring, thereby strengthening your professional relationship with your students.
  • Enrichment classes: Any club in which you enhance what was done in class will show that you are someone who goes out of your way to help your students, earning you massive respect. This kind of club is really effective for exam-level classes (e.g. SAT and IB Diploma cohorts.)
  • Any personal hobby that you have: The students will see a more ‘human’ side to you, and you’ll probably get kids doing activities that would never normally have access to. I’ve worked with colleagues who’ve ran clubs ranging from cross stitch and photography to Aikido and even Gaelic football.

Summary of the 4 strategies

  • Take a genuine interest in your students. Use information about their hobbies, interests and talents to inform lesson planning and the feedback you provide.
  • Use your personality to generate humor in your lessons. Remember to keep it tasteful, age-appropriate, non-sarcastic and linked to the learning outcomes of the lesson where possible.
  • Praise your students often, and empower them by recognizing their hidden talents and skills. Remember that praise only works if it is sincere, and remember to keep praising students who consistently work well (as these kids often get ignored after a while.)
  • Get involved in the extra-curricular life of the school. There is always something you can offer to enrich the learning of your students.

Want to learn more from Richard James Rogers? Check out his book, The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets That All High School Teachers Need to Know

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Krystal L. Smith July 7, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Great tips! Building a positive rapport with my students is at the center of my teaching. I agree that “it is the single most important facet of a successful educator…” Without those relationships, teaching will not be effective and learning will not occur. Additionally, depending on the age group you work with, families are great allies. I have learned that when you have the support of the families of the children in your class, the children are usually on board with you as well. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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