John Wolcott

Building rapport in the classroom

How to get students to find out who you really are?

"Teacher, you go to the island with many women?"

Let's face it. There's a stereotype that comes with being a male English teacher in Thailand. That is, we're all sex-tourists.

If you're single the cards are stacked against you. If you're married to a Thai national, and even better, have children together - well, that bumps you up the ranks in Thai society.

With this in mind, at the beginning of every corporate course, I tend to introduce myself and show my students pictures of myself with my wife and daughter with the hopes that it will build rapport between us. But it doesn't always work.

I still get a few students in each class who think I'm a sex tourist spending my nights and weekends sleuthing for bathhouses in Bangkok.

To say this doesn't bother me would be a lie. I love teaching and I spend a lot of time in the classroom trying to connect with my students on a personal level. But in some of their eyes I'm only teaching to make enough money to feed my vices.

If only they knew how a typical day went for me, then just maybe they would change their minds. If only they knew I wake up at the wee hours just like they do, fight traffic to get to work on time just like they do (or don't), go home and spend an hour or two at the park mingling with other parents with my wife and daughter just like they do, and even go food shopping on the weekends, just like they do, then maybe they would see me in a different light, as just another productive member of Thai society doing mostly mundane things.

So in an earnest attempt to win over the hearts and trust of all my students I usually play a Q&A game with them. I tell them they can ask me any questions they'd like (this gives them practice using question words) and in return I have to answer their questions as openly and as honestly as possible.

I find this creates a deeper relationship as it gives them a chance to get to know me on a personal level, and it lets them clear their minds of all the questions they've so eagerly been awaiting answers to.

"No, Golf. I don't go to the island with many women. I do go with my wife and daughter though. And between the two of them they're all the women this man can handle."

For the male teachers, how do you build rapport in the classroom? How do you win over the trust of your students?

My website.



Hi Mark. Thanks for the reply. I do appreciate it.

As you said, different strokes for different folks.

I think that building some rapport with the students goes a long way. The answers to the questions that my students have asked me seem to come up every now and again and are not all forgotten. Does this mean that every student takes an interest in my life? Not by a long shot. But some of them do. And I take an interest in all their lives as well. It helps me plan lessons accordingly.

My style of teaching is more informal. I don't mind if my students call me "teacher" or "John", it's "up to you/gor dai!", just as long as they're learning. And I always refer to them by nickname. Classroom management and maintaining control and a certain level of respect comes from character. So I don't demand of my students that they call me "ajarn" or "teacher" or any other title, so long as they play by the rules. Keep in mind I only teach adults. I'm sure if I was in the school system my approach would change.

Two of my current classes also set up Line App groups for the class. So if I see a misspelled sign somewhere during my travels I'll snap a photo and ask them to correct it. Other times they'll ask me for advice with English when we're not in class. Sometimes they'll post English idioms they've found online, that way everyone can try and break them down. Line is also a way to deliver slides from my English presentations so they have them to refer to at a later date (saves on paper and time). But even then they know their boundaries. They know I won't answer on weekends or at night.

As far as the gossip, it'll always be there. But I usually make a joke of it in the introductory class of all my courses. One of my rules is "No Gossiping about the teacher". I'll pause for a second and then say, "In Thai! If you gossip about the teacher it must be in English!" and they get a kick out of it.

Lastly, most of my contracts have been renewed since I've started teaching last year. The company I started working for last year under a contract has hired me as their English consultant indefinitely.

I still consider myself a new teacher. That's probably why I don't want to be called ajarn or anything like that, too. I feel it should be earned. There's also a lot I still need to learn and improve on. But my style of informal teaching won't change. I've had great feedback, students ask to join my class from other classes at the same company, human resources hears the employees laughing and having fun (very important for Thais), and more importantly (in my eyes) they're learning.

Would all this change if I had to teach a room full of executives? Probably. I'd still keep it fun but step it up a notch to something more formal and less personal. But overall I'd still use my introduction presentation that I always use, with pictures of my daughter, wife, myself. It's an unfortunate reality but having kids in Thailand-as a foreigner-moves you up a few ranks in society. You're no longer the stereotypical sex-tourist teacher. So that's what the pictures say without words, that I'm here because I love teaching English in Thailand and do it to support my family, not my vices. If I didn't have to do this, trust me, I wouldn't.

In the end though it comes down to personal preference.

Thanks again. Good dialogue.

By John , Bangkok (28th April 2015)

Good grief... I'm not sure whether or not this article has been slightly embellished for the sake of making a point. Maybe the author is just unlucky and looks like the kind of chap that likes to party or fits the mold of a sex tourist. Or maybe he teaches English in a bar! (I'm kidding, of course!)

Having been here for fifteen years and taught at every level, I can say with my hand on my heart that not one time have any clients or students been overly interested in what I do outside the classroom.

Oh, sure, we all get the usual 'where are you going on Songkran/at Christmas/for the summer?' type questions. But these are just ways of being friendly and of showing a superficial interest in you, and of course my answers are soon forgotten.

That said, my approach to the classroom is different than this writer. I don't try to 'connect on a personal level' with students. Somehow, I feel that an air of mystery is lost, the more the clients/students know about you.

It's not a deliberate thing and I don't think I'm being aloof or defensive... but I have learned through experience and anecdotal support, that it's best to hold back on revealing too much about yourself - Thais just love to gossip - and often not in a good way!

The writer sounds a lot more friendly and personable than I am. I wouldn't dream of pulling out personal photos of my family to ingratiate myself with students... at least certainly not as a way of breaking the ice with people that I don't know.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying for a moment that he's doing something bad... just that it's not for me. Different strokes and all that!

However; if it's true and the writer really is getting all this attention about what he gets up to after the class has ended, then I'd say that it's bad for business and that he should think about shutting down some of this familiarity.

Maybe for short term 'one off' contracts, you can be this way, but for building up a client list and repeating contracts, I would say that this is a tricky road to be on.

Sometimes, familiarity can backfire. What seems like a good way to elicit classroom attention and student involvement, may not be interpreted in the same way by human resources or the personnel office who aren't in the classroom to see how you work.

If you are engaging and friendly, and your materials are good, I don't think there's any need to share too much personal information with students. Of course they'll be interested in where you come from, whether or not you like Thai food and where you've traveled... but that's about as deep as I would want to get.

Like I say, different strokes and I'm sure I'll get a lot of stick for this!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (7th April 2015)

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