On Rapport

I do Bikram Yoga. There, I admitted it. Just to get that out there before we move on. I also need to tell you that I have as much flexibility as some thin steel at absolute zero (though without the steel) and am, concomitantly, rubbish at Bikram yoga. I’ve had about 45 classes now, still can’t even touch my toes and nearly die at least once during the arduous 90-minute lock-step torture that not even the Inquisition dared employ. Ok. Confession over.

Yogi Bugbear

The reason I mention this is because there is a distinct difference between the two instructors I see most often. Let’s call them Rita and Laura. While both are technically very proficient and even gifted at what they do, know the 26 poses inside out (not an unapt expression for yoga) and offer helpful suggestions for getting a position right or improving your own practice, the classes with Rita are just much better than those with Laura. Why would this be so and what does it have to do with ELT?

The answer is: rapport. But just what is that? The MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines rapport as “a relationship in which people like, understand and respect each other” (which suggests I failed to establish rapport with a couple of ex-girlfriends.. ). Narrowing the scope more to ELT, Jim Scrivener describes rapport as: “the quality of the relationship in the classroom: teacher – student and student – student. It is not primarily technique driven, but grows naturally when people like each other and get on together” (Classroom Management Techniques p40). So, basically, it’s about people liking each other and getting on well together, which is all very well, but how can it be achieved?

One of the problems with rapport is that some just seem to have it naturally, while others can struggle. While it’s difficult to say exactly why one teacher might have better rapport than another, there are certain behaviours that a teacher can work on to help them get there. To this end, Scrivener goes on from the above quotation to list “authenticity”,” good listening”, “showing respect and support”, and “a good sense of humour” as highly desirable in achieving a good rapport with a class. While in How to Teach English, Harmer adds “recognising students” to the list, as well as “being even handed” (pp26 & 27). So, now we have a fairly complete list, let’s see how it manifests itself in my yoga classes.

A rapport diagnostic: how to aid and hinder rapport-building

In this section, we’ll look at some of the ways that Laura manages to create a negative atmosphere at times, and some suggestions for how to remedy this.

Problem One

What the instructor does: singles late-comers out, stops the class to tell people off for being late and implies that they’re not taking the class seriously.

The problem: in a room full of adults, who are there to improve in some way, this sort of public reprimand is unhelpful, has a negative effect on the atmosphere in the room and can even be somewhat cringe-worthy.

What the instructor should do:  be understanding. Everyone coming to yoga has a job, often a high-pressure job in this part of the world, and the traffic is a nightmare.

It's hot, y'know
It’s hot, y’know

Perhaps they just got held up and couldn’t get there on time. At least they tried! Why not simply brush it off, continue and maybe after class have a quiet word, asking what the problem is and hinting that it’s not ideal to arrive late, but at least they’re making an effort to come.

Problem Two

What the instructor does: singles out only strong participants for praise

The problem: those less proficient at yoga are rarely – if ever – encouraged and can feel that they’re not up to the mark and that their efforts are futile (I know; I’m one of them!)

What the instructor should do:  Be even-handed. Distribute praise evenly throughout the group when the situation demands it. If someone has put in some extra effort, improved on a posture last week, is noticeably suffering (very common!) and needs encouragement, praise them. Don’t praise everything, or it loses its effect, but don’t just praise strong students as this can be counter-productive. Not all of us can put our foot over our head while balancing on one-leg and hold it for 25 seconds…

Problem Three

What the instructor does: reprimands people for getting things wrong or for, accordingly, “not listening”

The problem: mistakes are part of the learning process and just because someone makes one doesn’t mean they weren’t listening!

What the instructor should do:  show some respect and support. Demonstrate the posture again and highlight the part that’s gone wrong, not singling anyone in particular out. Simply deliver the ‘correction’ in a more supportive manner, telling a few students that they should continue to work on a certain part of the posture (nothing wrong with demand high yoga…). Perhaps offer some individual guidance while monitoring (yes, in yoga too) and don’t stop the class to tell people they’re not listening just because they’re not 100% perfect (I’m pretty sure this is actually some teacher insecurity hindering learning here, but that’s a blog post for another time..).

Problem Four

What the instructor does: knows the names of the stronger participants, but not the weaker ones (though oddly, she knows mine – must be a case of going long enough that she can’t not)

The problem: as with the praising, weaker students can feel discouraged or even slighted.

What the instructor should do: recognise students. It’s hard, very hard, to do, but a little more effort would go a long way. It’s particularly hard with a “drop-in” like event like this particular yoga class (an open group or rolling intake in ELT), but after a couple of weeks there really is no excuse. Even I know the names of some others I’ve barely spoken to. She could make some notes pre-class to help her remember or talk to people before they go in, asking how they are, etc. (she does this to a point, but only with the stronger ones or long-term regulars like me).

Problem Five

What the instructor does: delivers the class as if it were training session on how to kill enjoyment, rather than a collective exercise in, well, exercise.

I'm flagging at 23...
I’m flagging at 23…

The problem: there’s very little humour, or give, in her classes. They can be isolating. Sometimes it can seem monotonous, as if I have to get the most out of it for myself, without being gently nudged along by the rapport the teacher creates.

What the instructor should do:  have a sense of humour and reference the group effort. Rita has a good sense of humour and uses it well: “you’ve paid for the pain, make the most of it”, “only four postures to go before that glass of wine”, etc. I’m not saying she’s yoga’s Eddie Izzard, but in times of stress like the last third of a Bikram class, a little light banter goes a long way, helping you feel normal and part of a group. Yes, part of a group. This is exactly what Laura fails to do. And not having a sense of humour which, when used effectively can help create a group atmosphere, does not help.

Problem Six

What the instructor does: insists that postures are done by the book, regardless of individual issues with any one position in particular.

The problem: everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses and these should be catered for; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, the human body: my bad ankle is your dodgy hip. I guess it’s the yoga equivalent of learning preferences, in ELT terms.

What the instructor should do:  listen to the learners. It took about 2 months before I convinced Laura that I simply cannot do a couple of postures due to my knees. It’s not a case that I’m simply being a recalcitrant pest – that’s my knees. Rather than trying to push me to do a posture (three actually) in a certain way, help me round it by suggesting something else. I’m being slightly disingenuous here as she has now done this, but it took a while. Learners are individuals and should be treated as such.

Taking a Position

So that’s my list of ways in which rapport is not built in my yoga class, with the parallels for the ELT classroom needing no further explanation. I bet you never thought a Bikram Yoga class and, say, a pre-intermediate English class could have this in common, but they do. The same would apply to many other situations, such as group work, leadership, or even talking down the pub with your friends. If the rapport isn’t there, it’s just not going to work out as well. Of course, rapport can actually have a detrimental effect, and we’ve probably all seen those teachers who get by on it alone – the entertainers whose teaching may not be wonderful, but whose students sure have a good time in class (Scott Thornbury writes about this here). However, it’s clear that rapport is an essential element of good teaching, for me, and I enjoy my yoga classes far more with it, than without. And the same goes for my CELTA groups, my friendly games of doubles badminton, my office, my Spanish classes, my IELTS re-certification training… you name it. It really can be the rapport what makes it.

9 thoughts on “On Rapport

  1. Great post, Chris, combining two of my fave things with your usual great humour and sound advice. One to bookmark and share with our Celtees who often ask ‘Yes, but what do you mean by rapport?’ or even come back to myself when I think ‘Can I help this trainee improve their rapprt?’. Sounds like you need a whole big dose of rapport to survive IELTS re-certification training, though!

  2. Great post Chris! I’m glad that you have dscovered the joys of yoga, and how it can also be connected to the ELT world as well! Personally, I didn’t enjoy Bikram because I found it boring, both because of the teachers’ way of always saying exactly the same things, and the fact that the poses are the same every single time. Also a parallel to the classroom, as the same format for every lesson would make me fall asleep/give up after not too long. Personally I need to be challenged and surprised with new poses/tasks to keep me engaged and trying hard. (I’m not saying that Bikram is not challenging, by the way! Rather, I found the poses boring, and doing them in a hot room didn’t make it any more interesting for me!) You should try a Vinyasa or Ashtanga class next…!! Keep it up!

  3. Rose

    Hello Chris!
    This post is great and highlights what just happened to me in a health appointment. For some reason, experts in any field lose that ability to remember that their students, patients, clients are PEOPLE, that they actually deserve privacy, respect, and support. It´s like after some time they are somewhat immune to those particular details because they are so used to “dealing” with people that they skip the: “Good morning, how are you?… My name is… I will assist you today with… Is it ok if I ask you some questions?… This is my assistant Sarah… she will be taking some notes… Do you have time today to?… Would you like to go ahead with this treatment proposal right away or do you prefer to …?”
    And the same goes for us as teachers. And I recognize that sometimes that “they” includes me, as my everyday stress and also my own teaching issues come up, at times totally subtly (to me of course, because the students notice it right away).
    I guess a lot of personality trait has a part in all of this, as well as experience and formation, but most of all, SELF awareness in remembering how hard it was to learn English (maybe this was long long time ago) ourselves, also remembering that we are not perfect, therefore cannot expect this from others. Teaching does not imply that we know everything, that we cannot make mistakes and that we can automatically humiliate students just because we have more power in the class. In fact, I have learned a lot from teachers who actually acknowledge their limits in knowledge, their mistakes, and sometimes lack of information. It is sometimes really hard to take the mask off and say, “well, I don´t know…” and then say “but, we can figure it out together”.
    But most of all, probably understanding that we learn different ways, and that we all have different necessities and strengths is where the problem lies. If one has never ever sat to ponder on these facts on one´s own life it is really very hard to actually understand rapport. It may seem unreal but yes, some people just have no idea, they have always been treated the way they act and perhaps have not had an encounter of “the third type” in which someone really sweet, respectful and professional treats them with so much respect that they actually perceive the difference.

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  6. Sarah Clow

    Hey Chris,
    Interesting post, particularly for me as I always liken my fitness classes to my experience in the classroom. Even though it is a completely different thing being taught, there any many parallels. I go to pilates here and my instructor is excellent. There are only about 6 of us so there is a great atmosphere (even though there are annoying students, of course). The instructor is incredibly professional, but has an excellent rapport, makes everyone feel comfortable and makes jokes with us. She also recognises that everyone has different strengths and that everyone has their own level to work on, praising occasionally if she notices a difference in a students’s progress. The most important thing is though that she’s a good teacher and the same goes for the classroom. I feel that a lot of teachers mistake having a good rapport as trying to be mates with the students and not being a “teacher”.

    Going to Spanish classes here has also made me think more about my classes as if my teacher said anything about me being late or not doing homework, frankly I wouldn’t go back. It’s important to remember that adult students are coming to classes on top of many other things and that it’s important that we make them want to come back.

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  8. hi Chris,

    fab post indeed.

    a big factor in establishing rapport is trust, the students may like you but do they trust you to take care of their needs? similarly do teachers trust their students to take the initiative and help them with the class?

    i clearly remember the difference in situations in classes where rapport/trust has been established compared to classes lacking it!


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