Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 15, 2018
By Nicholas McKay

teach english abroad

Want to know how to connect with your students? Read on and I'll reveal my techniques.

Sometimes, students will spend more time with you, their teacher, than they will with their parents. Teachers, after all, have a massively important role in shaping the lives and values of students.

Naturally, because of this, students are curious to know more about you. Some teachers I’ve met have misconstrued student interest as misbehavior.

Children can be very tenacious when they want something. Most students I’ve met say they don’t want their teachers to be their BFF.

They do however want to know, who is the stranger at the front of the class? What are they like? What punishments do they dish out for unruly behaviour? And how far can they be pushed before they run screaming towards the nearest psych ward?

One such strategy is one many teachers overlook – learn students’ names. Students love it when a teacher remembers their name. This shows you have a vested interest in them.

Some students experience difficult lives outside of school. To know an adult is paying attention to them means a lot.

Whenever I have a new class, I begin by asking students to write me a letter for homework. They are required to discuss who they are and what hobbies they enjoy. I also ask them what profession they want to enter, and what they wish to achieve in the subject.

I sometimes ask what teacher practices they appreciate. This way, I understand what students like, and can accommodate them. I will try to incorporate activities they enjoy into the classroom experience.

Ask your ESL students what they want to achieve in the class.

Ask your students what they want to achieve in the class.

I am also able to analyse how proficient a student’s language, spelling and grammar skills are. This will come in handy when constructing essays.

Additionally, at the beginning of a new class, I play the game ‘two truths, one lie’. I provide students with a sheet of paper containing multiple statements of three. Two of these are true, one is not.

In pairs, students are required to guess which of the three isn’t real. I give students a few minutes to work on these. I allow them to ask me questions, to better their odds of guessing correctly. We then go through their guesses as a class, with often hilarious results.

When introducing myself to a Year 10 English class, I provided many statements. The following three are just one example I asked them to identify the lie in:

A) I have a fascination with Asian films, Korean drama, Japanese anime and A-Pop.

B) My favourite A-Pop groups/singers include Big Bang, G-Dragon and Xia.

C) My favourite American singers/bands include Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Don Henley, Joshua Kadison, Richard Marx, Lifehouse, Daughtry and Nickelback.

Almost everyone assumed C) was the lie. I don’t know why, but I’m the only person I know who listens to Nickelback (sob).

One student responded by saying “everyone likes a little G-Dragon”. Unfortunately, I don’t, and when I told the class this, he was devastated.

When he wrote his letter to me, he said he couldn’t believe I didn’t like G-Dragon’s music. However, because I liked Ace of Angels, he said we were cool.

Furthermore, every teacher has their own special abilities. As for me, I write poetry in my spare time. Students in the aforementioned year 10 class were fascinated with this pastime of mine. So, as a reward for doing the work, I would sometimes read them poetry at the end of a class.

Moving on, I argue, teachers need to accept responsibility for their mistakes. I’ve observed a number of classes where a teacher made a spelling error on the board or on a worksheet.

When students picked up on these, the teacher’s automatic reaction was to save face. “I deliberately inserted those to see if you were paying attention”, is a common response.

Students see right through this. In short, the teacher is being condescending and dismissive.

I always own up to it. There was a time I developed a word search for a Year 10 Media class. I spelt the term ‘lighting’ wrong. After printing off 25 sheets, and only finding the error at the last minute, I simply notified the class.

On another occasion, I had a conversation with a student in a Year 8 English classroom. She raised a very good point, and I chose to write it on the board for others to copy down. Instead, I wrote her name on the board by accident, only to have her think she was in trouble!

For me, I always make a joke about this. I laugh, or I say “my bad!” A person who can laugh at themselves is obviously very comfortable. Do however avoid sarcastic responses – this detracts from teacher-student connections.

Students enjoy picking up on teacher errors. As I inform my students, I’m not God, so I don’t know everything.

I make mistakes, just as they do. This conveys a sense of humility.

Besides, self-correction is a technique students are required to learn – so, why not show them an example of it?

The classroom is a vulnerable place for students – responding incorrectly can lead to moments of embarrassment. Seeing a teacher in an equally vulnerable position will garner their respect.

As an ESL teacher, admitting your mistakes can convey a sense of humility.

Admitting your mistakes can convey a sense of humility.

Lastly, I will argue for teachers not to be afraid to have random conversations. Previously, I taught a year 12 class. There were two girls who rarely did the work. They experienced difficulty, yet never asked for help, because of a lacking connection with their teachers.

After two weeks teaching them, both girls were happy asking for my assistance. Why? Sometimes I would stop and listen to what they were talking about while walking around the room. I would then involve myself in their conversation.

There was a moment one student was talking about her boyfriend. By asking the simple question, “is he hot?”, I became part of a conversation about their relationship. She admitted the struggles they were having, and asked for my opinion.

When you build a connection with students, don’t be surprised if they see you as a confidant. Sometimes these will be very hilarious. Others may even be heartbreaking, and might cause you to involve coordinators, or even police.

However, even those moments prove one undeniable truth. The students trust you, and because of this, they are likely to be more willing to learn.

What strategies do you use for connecting with students? Please share your thoughts below.

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