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Commandment 4 – Develop a good relationship with the learners

One of the most rewarding parts of being an ALT is being able to build relationships with your students. But more than that, developing relationships with your students can lead to better classroom performance and greater motivation for them. Here are a few tips I have picked up over the years.

Learn Their Names

One of the simplest ways to develop a good relationship with your students is to learn their names.

If you are like me and you have multiple classes of around 40 students, and at multiple schools, this doesn’t seem so simple at all! I am bad enough at remembering names, but add school uniforms, the same hair colour, and masks, and it begins to feel downright hopeless.

But there are ways to make this important task much more manageable.

It is a good idea to ask your JTE or homeroom teacher for a seating chart for each class you will teach. Usually these are in kanji, so ask if you need a hiragana or even romaji list.

One thing I have done to help me get to my students is to have them pair up and interview each other using a scaffolded interview template. I then collect the sheets and compare them with the seating chart. Ah, this is Yamamoto’s seat. He likes BTS and horror movies. This is Ito’s seat. She likes soccer and cooking, and so on.

It still takes some time for me to get to know the students this way, but it helps.

One thing that I haven’t had much long-term success with is name cards. During that first lesson, I would give students time to make name cards to display on their tables so that I could see them. We usually started out strong, but by the third or fourth week of classes, the cards would be turned towards themselves, or buried under textbooks.

Perhaps my first-year senior high school students found the cards too reminiscent of elementary school or junior high.

Set Boundaries

First is the obvious – don’t date your students. But boundaries can, and should, mean more than just in the romantic sense.

ALTs generally aren’t supposed to be responsible for classroom discipline, but we definitely can help set the mood for our classes and make them safe and welcoming spaces for all students.

About once every year, I have to stop my class and have A Talk. I don’t mind students talking and having fun, even if minimal English is being used. I don’t even mind catching a little attitude from a student who is not having a good time. But I will not tolerate disrespect for other students or JTEs my classes.

I once had a student try to stab another in the neck with a pencil, right in front of me.

I want my classroom to be a fun place. I want students to describe me as fun and caring. I want them to trust me. But they cannot do that if they think I will let their classmates harm them, or that acting out that way is ok.

Creating a classroom space where each student, and the teacher, is respected can go a long way in improving motivation.

Get out of the classroom

I love being able to spend time with students outside of the English classroom.

I was the leader of the English Speaking Society club, and that was a great opportunity to have fun and get to know the students while using English without the pressure of English class. We almost became the Oatmeal Games Club. I’d ask, “Do you want to play Exploding Kittens or Bears vs. Babies?” and I’d be answered with a chorus of “Babies babies babies!” It was also very fun explaining what exactly a “poo-copter” was to them. Poop jokes are the truly universal language.

Sometimes I was involved in tea ceremony club events.

I cheered for students in the annual school marathon.

I helped with the daily cleaning.

I would wave back when the students spotted me walking to or from the school and they shouted, “Chelanna sensei I love you!” Sometimes I would blow dramatic kisses at the most obnoxious students and shout back, “I love you too!”.

Having these opportunities to interact outside of the classroom really gave me the chance to get to know my students as people, not just as faces in their rows of desks.

I know it made me more motivated to do my best for my students every day, and I hope it inspired them too.