Hi! My name is Jelena (pronounced as: ‘yelenə) Marjanovic and I come from Serbia. I have always wanted to be a teacher, so I started giving private lessons already at 19. At the time, I was studying English at Belgrade University so I saw my private teaching as an opportunity to practice what I was learning about in methodology classes. When I graduated, I moved to the UK as I got a scholarship to do my master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. It is there that I first saw someone teaching English via Skype and even though I thought it was a brilliant idea, I was sceptical about whether it could ever come up to the teaching standard I wanted to establish. Ironically, it’s the same misconception I am trying to dispel nowadays with the teachers who are reluctant to give online teaching a try!
After I graduated, I worked in a few schools and continued with my face-to-face private classes, but in them, I always tried to integrate some technology – I gave webquests as homework, I played online games with students during classes, we did online interactive grammar exercises, etc. I did still use textbooks, but I just thought digital resources comparatively offered many more affordances for learning. Besides, I have always enjoyed creating EFL learning activities and technology really facilitated that creative process. That’s why after CELTA, when I was offered a free course of my choice, I opted for one on blended learning. As I was learning about LMSs and how video conferencing tools can be integrated into them, I realized that I could take full advantage of technology affordances if my classes were 100% online. Besides, I was to go travelling throughout Asia for a few months so it was a perfect opportunity to go online. I have never taught face-to-face since, even when my students lived near me.
At the moment, even though I am not actively teaching, I coach teachers who want to start their own online teaching business. I immensely enjoy helping them discover the full potential of online teaching. For the past few years I’ve worked as an e-learning developer and consultant so I also like helping others make the transition from teaching to developing. If you’d like my help with anything to do with online teaching and e-learning, please feel free to join my Facebook group, write to me on my Facebook page or simply send a message through the form below.
How to Establish a Rapport with Your Online Students
One of the reasons why many teachers and students do not like the idea of online classes is because they see them as depersonalized. Regardless of how relaxed and easy-going it may seem, student-teacher interaction is often burdened with self- and other-imposed expectations, anxiety, even frustration – these may be unvoiced but they certainly exist. In other words, there is a considerable amount of tension in every student-teacher relationship, so it is understandable that both participants prefer to meet in an environment they perceive as safe, authentic and direct (as opposed to Skype-mediated).
Now, one could argue (and I would support that argument) that computer-mediated communication is the authentic communication of today and that therefore online classes should be started seeing as a norm. However, the fact that many feel less comfortable teaching/being taught through Skype still remains. (The same people do not necessarily feel uncomfortable using Skype to chat with friends, but that is material for another article.)
If we were to agree with this perception then we should also believe a good rapport cannot be established in an online teaching environment. However, this is far away from the truth. Building rapport is equally important and achievable in online classes as it is in f2f teaching, although the two can rarely be done using the same means. In fact, I believe that with one student you could not achieve the same rapport in online classes as you would in f2f classes, but the point is that you shouldn’t. What you should focus on is establishing a good student-teacher relationship, and that might mean something different in online classes.
In general, having a positive rapport with your students means that a good interpersonal connection is established. There is mutual trust, ease of communication, a healthy dose of humour and balance between fun and work, to name just a few factors. A good rapport in f2f classes often results in a very positive image of the teacher and some student-teacher bonding. In many such cases, students identify the class and even their own learning with the teacher. They might even reject working with other teachers fearing it would be useless. In online classes this happens to a much lesser extent, at least at the time of writing this article. The physical distance and the mediated communication seem to be less conducive to this student-teacher bonding effect (I know many would argue against and I am open to hearing these arguments). This is good because it gives you an opportunity to build rapport not on who you are as a teacher and person, but on the learning environment, you create with your students. Ultimately, you want your students to feel that you are a facilitator of their autonomous learning, someone who is in the background of the online class in which they learn not only English but also how to be better learners. In other words, you want your online students to connect with your online class – its organization, the tools used in it, the interaction with technology enabled by it. That’s the basis of a good rapport in online classes – trusting the class organization, feeling comfortable with the technology used in it and seeing learning in that online class as fun and engaging. To have a good rapport with your online students means they feel independent of you as a teacher and yet they prefer to have you as their guide to learning.
How can you establish rapport with your online students?
There are at least three ways to build a rapport in your online classes. These are:
- Encouragement of learner autonomy
- Keeping communication channels open
There’s no better rapport booster than having a class that feels like fully customized VIP experience. We should all strive to help our students create personalized learning environments. First, help them find out who they are as learners by conducting learner analysis. Then, use the information from the learner analysis to build online activities best suited for them, which would encourage them to do similar activities in their autonomous learning as well. Model the use of different online resources and engage students in different modes of online communication (not just Skype and email) so they could recognize what works for them and adopt it. Needless to say, the content should be maximally personalized to match your students’ interests and keep the motivation up.
2. Encouragement of learner autonomy
I’ve heard a few teachers say “why would a student need me in autonomous learning activities? If they hired me, it’s surely because they cannot work on their own and they want someone who can explain everything to them”. It can be that a student is thinking that, but it is teacher’s responsibility to prove her/him wrong. Use your online class not only to teach English, but also to show your students they can learn on their own and how they can do it. And don’t be afraid – they won’t stop hiring you once they realize they can learn independently of you. On the contrary, they will appreciate you more as a teacher and come to see you as a personal learning counsellor and this will make your rapport better than ever.
3. Keeping communication channels open
In f2f classes, your contact with the student begins and ends in the classroom, except for maybe some out-of-class phone and/or email communication. However, in an online setting, there is often no sense of limited or appropriate time. True, your classes may last for 90 minutes but if you are to integrate different digital tools and allow for flexibility then your contact with the student probably won’t be limited to those 90 minutes. For example, you may give structured homework that is to be done in online collaboration with other students and whose efficient completion depends on your timely feedback. And that is apart from answering emails, replying in forums and giving feedback to their autonomous work. It is up to every teacher to choose whether they will keep the communication open or always wait until the next class to reply/give feedback. My opinion is that instant response and synchronous interaction are authentic forms of 21st-century communication and therefore limiting your communication with students to the class hours seems outdated and ineffective. Sure, no one expects you to be available 24/7 but keeping regular contact with your online students will definitely improve your rapport, even if it costs you additional time and effort.