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Balancing Rapport and Discipline in School-Aged Groups

Balancing Rapport and Discipline in School-Aged Groups | ITTT | TEFL Blog

First impressions can be a daunting topic for many, as they will generally set the tone for the rest of a relationship and can be hard to revert. These first impressions will not only be key toward the ease of establishing rapport with someone but also toward what the other party will expect of you in order to maintain an amicable relationship from then on.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Nicolas F. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Group Size

The number of people that one needs to establish a rapport with will be a major factor in deciding the necessary dynamics to do so. Connecting with individual clients in the business world can be relatively simple when compared with, for example, connecting with a whole group of tourists. The amount of time that will be spent interacting, be it in the immediate or long run, will also be a major deciding factor.

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If someone were to ask what job can be a good learning experience for someone aspiring to eventually become an educator, “tour guide” would be a great answer from personal experience. There are similarities among both jobs which make experience acquired in them mutually applicable. The more obvious similarity is that in both cases, one must be able to impart knowledge accurately while at the same time not boring the audience’s attention span away. Similar codes of conduct also apply in terms of appropriate topics and language.

In terms of human dynamics, there is also a similarity in having to befriend one’s group while at the same time retaining a certain degree of authority in order to be able to lead the group through the planned activities.

Important Professional Skills

Tour guides and teachers share another similarity where members of both professions would agree that dealing with groups of children, namely anyone between first grade and early university, require particularly high amounts of patience, dedication, and selflessness.

A common theme with youngsters is a nearly automatic disdain for authority. Without a good rapport, the class is unlikely to respond to anything short of the proverbial iron fist, which will hurt their learning process as they’ll begrudgingly parroting just enough knowledge to get it over with. On the other hand, a good rapport can be mistaken for permissiveness, and can thus be lost when the teacher is finally forced to pull rank.

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Balance and consistency are thus key elements from the very first encounter. During the first minutes with a new teacher, students will most likely be bracing for the worst and in some cases even formulating some form of containment or retaliation plan. These minutes are when the entire arsenal of rapport-forming techniques comes into play. That is to say small talk, relaxed body language, a positive attitude with a matching smile, looking for common experiences and likes to bond over, the right tone of voice, and others. Also, as silly as it sounds, selecting and establishing one’s moniker will be important in determining the degree of respect that students will address one with. A first name basis may work fine with individual students or with professional adult groups but may lead younger pupils into unwanted informality and indiscipline. Consider factors like how hard it is to spell one’s last name, potential pronunciation issues, or how it may be twisted into an unwanted word game (In my personal case, “Mr. Fabbroni” will backfire badly with Spanish speakers and has also been described as “mafia-like”. “Mr. Nick” or even “Mr. N” on the other hand is formal enough and rolls off the tongue and pen much more smoothly).

Friendship in the Classroom

By the time the initial tension has been cleared, students should be able to see the teacher as a fellow human instead of a grade-dispensing knowledge-spewing boredom-inducing machine from their most aggravating nightmares. At this point, it is advisable to gently steer the group back into the realm of academic formality.

A good way to approach this return to formality (and the chorus of groans that accompany it) is to express sympathy by explaining that as much as we all love fun and games, we are here to accomplish a goal which is to improve your English. Note the specific wording: “We” are here to accomplish a goal. The teacher becomes part of the group, in a way, instead of someone above and separate from it.

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Steps to Build Rapport

The first unpopular formality to address will be the code of conduct, which in some cases will include mention of the institution’s rules. The importance of these rules can be conveyed more easily by using examples that demonstrate their logic, ideally with a light touch of humor to keep the mood from going somber. For example, noise discipline will make more sense if you ask the students to imagine themselves trying to do a math test if the teacher next door lets their class shriek like monkeys at which point a quick, tactfully short, and sedate monkey impersonation may keep the proverbial ice broken.

Rather than outright threaten discipline for those who break the rules, a positive incentive for keeping the class free of disruptions will go a long way toward keeping a receptive attitude among the students. After all, if the material is being learned at a smooth pace, the result will be more time for amenable activities that don’t require the traditional textbook and notebook work.

Of course, all of this only covers the first day and will have been for naught if one can’t be consistent about it during the course’s duration. It is important to be fair and, once again, consistent when it comes to choosing when to be flexible and when to outright pull rank. Applying authority too often will eventually breed resentment. Being too permissive will disrupt the flow of knowledge and, when authority is finally applied, may backfire as far as being taken as a break of trust.

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In short, a healthy relationship with a group of young people requires that a teacher be able to juggle being a friend and a leader.

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