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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #2 Develop a good relationship with the learners




Teacher talking with her studentsContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the second of the 10 Commandments: Develop a good relationship with the learners.

Let’s begin with a story about stubborn donkeys, carrots, and sticks. There are, the proverb says, two ways of encouraging donkeys to move. One is to dangle a carrot at the front end of the beast and the second to apply a stick at the other end. Which is more effective depends on the nature of the particular animal.

What’s this got to do with teaching English? Well, where I live there are still a lot of people who think about motivation in schools in much the same terms, as a concept that depends on external rewards and punishments. And in some ways that seems common sense – what else is going to work?

Luckily, this isn’t necessarily true. Look at this quote on Goal Contents Theory a quick Google search found:

Extrinsic goals such as financial success, appearance, and popularity/fame have been specifically contrasted with intrinsic goals such as community, close relationships, and personal growth, with the former more likely associated with lower wellness and greater ill-being. (https://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/theory.php)

Or, to put this another way, the soft skills involved in teaching can be much more powerful than the rewards students can see waiting at the end of their course. Relationships matter.

There are probably as many ways of having a good relationship with your students as there are good teachers in the world, but here are some things which you’d usually expect to see.

First up, listening.  The Scots have a saying:  Listen twice before you speak once. That seems to me pretty good advice for teachers, both in terms of dealing with any problems that crop up in class and when listening to students’ English – we should listen first for what our students are actually saying before listening for mistakes. And when we’re monitoring it’s a good way of entering into a dialogue (I’m looking at New English File Intermediate 4C, where students are talking in pairs about matters like ‘a teacher at school you used to hate, a singer you used to listen to a lot and who you still like, a friend you used to have but who you’ve lost touch with’ and so on). These are personal things and if we can listen and share them, that’s great. Showing an interest in learners as human beings is what it’s about here.

Of course there are many reasons to listen. Another is provided by one more great source of proverbs, anon: A good listener is a silent flatterer. Flattery makes us feel good, and properly listening (paying complete attention, maintaining eye contact, thinking about the message as well as the language) will foster self-respect and respect for the classroom.

Linked to this are a number of other features of good relationships. Showing sympathy for problems is important, of course, though how you go about showing that depends on who you are. And how far you might want to take relationships outside class is a personal matter, too. Some teachers I know will email their students (I’m old fashioned: they may even be befriending on Facebook, for all I know), while some wouldn’t dream of it. But even if the extra-classroom relationship is just a casual word in the corridor, then it’s a positive step.

And jokes, they’re apparently a good thing, too!

How do you develop relationships with your students?

Remind yourself of the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners and look out for future posts by Tim exploring the remaining Commandments.

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  1. This is especially true when you teach at Centres of Languages where groups are somewhat overpopulated (35 or more students per class) and terms are rather short (40hrs each). In cases like these, one may come to think developing a good relationship is irrelevant and the focus is on covering the topics in the coursebook. At times, It feels we’re a mass production seudo-users of English factory than a school.

  2. I teach young learners mostly, so it’s OK with personal relationship, they are so open hearted. But they need those “carrots” so much! And I’d like them to be more interested, more involved, and they get distracted so easily that sometimes their inability to understand or remember the simplest things begins to irritate me. What should I do?

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