Building Rapport with Students Online or in the Classroom

Mike Lawson • MusicEd: Mentor Minute • October 1, 2020

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Whether you’ve been in school for the last several weeks or you’re just seeing students for the first time this year, building rapport is more important now than ever. If you are teaching entirely online, like many of us are, it may be particularly challenging right now.

I know how much we use the time outside of class just as much as the time inside to build rapport and build relationships with our students. High fives in the hallways and casual chats after school can be one of the best ways to build relationships with your students and show them that you care. It can feel difficult to do this and the online setting, or when you’re at school but having social distance.

Regardless of the current situation you’re in and what your classroom might look like, here are six things that you can do to help build instant rapport and start to develop a culture within your classroom. I cannot take credit for all of these – they come from my friend Cameron Jenkins. Cameron is a middle school band teacher in Mississippi and is one of my mentors of student leadership.

Here are his “Five G’s” for gaining ground, building a culture, and developing rapport with your students whether they’re online or in person.

Get their name correct. This one may seem very simple but it is also very important. As someone who more often than not has my name mispronounced, I can tell you that when someone pronounces my name right it helps me realize that they have taken the time and effort to get it right. One of the first things you can do is invite your students to tell you their name either on a video or an audio recording. All it takes is using an annotation tool where they can comment. Cameron has done this in Google Classroom using the Kami Chrome Extension, or you may opt for something like Flipgrid. Whatever tool you use, be sure you take the time to get their name correct. It’s the first and easiest step you can take to showing them that you genuinely care.

Generate a smile. One of my favorite statistics to keep in mind as a teacher is that students learn exponentially faster when they’re in a good mood. If you can get them to smile, to laugh, you are actually triggering things in their brain that are going to open them up to you as their teacher. They will perceive that you put them in a good mood because you will have! After all, most students will join your class because they’re joining you. Let your positive attitude be contagious and get your students to smile.

Gain common ground. In a world that is so incredibly polarized  as ours is right now, finding common ground is more important than ever. Chances are good you have at least something in common with every student in your class. For example, you likely have some significant event in your life that is the same month as a student’s birthday. Or maybe you’re into the same show on Netflix, or listen to the same music, or maybe you like to read the same types of books. Having your students fill out an interest survey could help you determine the best areas in which to find common ground and connect with that student immediately.

Get them talking. Most people love to talk more than they love to listen. But if you want to build rapport with your students, you’ve got to get them talking and put your listening hat on. This isn’t just a great way to get to know them as people, but to get them to learn as individuals as well. Start with the questions “why” and “how.” Help guide them to a deeper understanding, and you right along with them. I’ve discovered the more I can get someone talking about themselves, the more comfortable they are, and that is exactly how I want them to feel.

Guard the culture. Cameron suggests to think of your culture not as what you do in your classroom, but what you allow. Will you allow your students to complain about things that are out of their control? Will you allow them to be negative with each other or about their assignments? Or is your culture one where you allow positivity? Do you allow them to have control? Will you try and get everyone to act the same, or will you allow them to be the individuals they are? Once you’ve decided what you want to allow in your classroom, you can start framing out what you want your culture to look like. Once you know what your culture should look like, it’s time to let your students be a part of that culture.

Building rapport with students can be challenging at any time. I believe that now more than ever it’s important for us to show them that we care and one of the best ways to do that is with these Five G’s.

Elisa Janson Jones is the senior manager of online learning for Conn-Selmer, the writer and producer of the Music Ed Mentor Podcast, founder of Music Educators Creating Online Learning Facebook Group, a columnist for SBO Magazine, author of multiple books for music educators, and conductor of her local community band. Cameron W. Jenkins is the founder of Full Potential Leadership, a founding member of REACH Through Music, and director of bands at Bayou View Middle School with more than 180 students in their All- Superior middle school band program. Cameron has been named the Bayou View Middle School Teacher of the Year, the Gulfport School District Teacher of the Year, the Middle School Band Director of the Year by the Gulf Coast Band Directors Association, and is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.


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