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Teacher-student rapport in emergency remote teaching: Autoethnography

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Published onMay 09, 2022
Teacher-student rapport in emergency remote teaching: Autoethnography


This autoethnographic work explores how four university English teachers in Oman approached rapport-building with students during Emergency Remote Teaching. Based on an analysis of the researcher’s personal teaching experiences as well as interviews with three colleagues, the findings revealed that the absence of face-to-face communication compelled these teachers to adopt alternative rapport-building strategies, such as interacting via email, listening to students during synchronous classes, being friendly and using humour. The teachers failed, however, to find ways to implement some key elements of rapport-building, such as recognising students, giving praise and providing intervention when needed. Cultural, institutional and technical difficulties hampered their concerted efforts to build interpersonal relationships with students.

Keywords: teacher-student rapport; rapport-building; Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT)

Part of the special issue Autoethnography in online doctoral education

1. Introduction

Teacher-student rapport refers to the harmonious and positive relationship between a teacher and their students and is important for the creation of a learning-conducive environment and learning success. It correlates with students’ retention, motivation and learning (Benson et al., 2005; Frisby et al., 2016; Frisby & Martin, 2010; Glazier, 2016; Wilson & Ryan, 2013). Rapport develops through simple actions like eye contact, smiling and calling students by their names (Tickle-Degnen & Rosenthal, 1990; Wilson & Taylor, 2001). Personalised feedback, comments on students’ work (Eom et al., 2006; Glazier, 2016) and care for students’ success (Tickle-Degnen & Rosenthal, 1990) can also enhance rapport. When students are physically present in class, rapport-building is generally viewed as an opportunity rather than a challenge. In distance education (DE), however, the physical distance between teachers and students makes rapport-building a difficult task (Glazier, 2016; Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008). Teacher load and technical limitations can also hinder rapport-building in DE contexts (Buus & Georgsen, 2018; Jones, 2015; Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2012).

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, most educational institutions shifted to Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT). Institutions, teachers and students were not prepared for online education, and the focus of ERT was maintaining basic educational services during a time of crisis (Hodges et al., 2020; Mohmmed et al., 2020). As a language teacher, it was evident to me that the absence of face-to-face communication limited class interaction. Consequently, I have felt unsatisfied with my teaching experience during the ERT period. Many students also have expressed that they have felt unheard, disconnected and disregarded. I teach English to university students at the University of Technology and Applied Sciences in Oman, and in March 2020, all classes shifted from face-to-face instruction, with minor portions of asynchronous online components, to completely online delivery. Since then, classes have been held synchronously on Microsoft Teams®. These classes are recorded and made available for students from remote areas with limited Internet accessibility.

This study aims to explore, through personal experience, English teachers’ approaches to and challenges with rapport-building during ERT at the University of Technology and Applied Sciences in Oman. The following research questions guided the study:

  1. How do university English teachers build rapport with their students in normal circumstances?

  2. How do university English teachers build rapport with their students during Emergency Remote Teaching?

  3. What challenges do university English teachers experience in rapport-building during Emergency Remote Teaching?

2. Literature review

2.1 Teacher-student rapport: Definition and importance

Classroom rapport is an interaction between a teacher and their students that is characterised by harmony and positivity (Bernieri, 1988; Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2012). Rapport-building has two important elements: reciprocity and coordination (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2012). It involves mutual attentiveness, respect, understanding and openness, as well as coordinated interaction and movement. Buskist and Saville (2001) emphasise that building rapport requires a combination of these behaviours, as well as consistency. Overall, building rapport means building a relationship that is coordinated, regular and ongoing (Glazier, 2016).

Rapport is linked with teacher immediacy (Benson et al., 2005), the verbal and nonverbal behaviours that physically and psychologically bring teachers and students closer (Andersen, 1979). Teacher behaviours that help establish immediacy include praising students, smiling and making eye contact. Previous research indicates that immediacy, like rapport, correlates with a positive learning environment and motivation (e.g., Frymier, 1993; Gol et al., 2014; Velez & Cano, 2008). In addition to teacher behaviours, rapport is also associated with particular teacher characteristics, such as respect, helpfulness and enthusiasm (Wilson et al., 2010). That is, ‘rapport is about ongoing relationships that embody harmony, caring, coordination, and openness’ (Granitz et al., 2009, p. 53).

Research shows that teacher-student rapport-building can lead to positive outcomes for both teachers and students. It is associated with motivation, attentiveness, attendance, participation (Benson et al., 2005; Granitz et al., 2009) and enhanced learning (Frisby & Martin, 2010; Glazier, 2016; Wilson et al., 2010; Wilson & Ryan, 2013). For teachers, building an interpersonal relationship with students in online classes leads to teaching satisfaction and positive attachment to their institution (Frisby et al., 2016).

2.2 Rapport-building in distance education

In distance education, building teacher-student rapport is even more important since face-to-face interaction is absent. Nir-Gal (2002) states that distance learning settings require instruction with personal-emotional support. Early research into interaction in online education has highlighted the importance of the social aspect of the learning process. One of the three essential forms of interaction in Moore’s (1989) online interaction model is the learner-teacher interaction, both instructional and interpersonal. Mason’s model (1991) and Berge’s model (1995) of online interaction propose that maintaining a positive social environment in online classes is essential for their success. Some research evaluating the use of new technologies aimed at enhancing social interaction in online classes has yielded positive results. For example, using such technologies as online forums (English, 2007) and social media (Matzat & Vrieling, 2016) led to more teacher-student interactions.

While online technologies have the potential to facilitate classroom interaction, including interpersonal interaction, the design and construction of these communication technologies in online courses must be carefully considered if they are to be effective. Interpersonal interactions in online classrooms should be ‘premediated, [and] consciously promoted’ (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008, p. 1068). When effectively implemented, teacher-student rapport-building results in a positive learning environment (Galeshi & Taimoory, 2019; Redmond et al., 2018), knowledge gain (Song et al., 2019) and academic success (Glazier, 2016; James & Shammas, 2018). However, relational interaction in online classes is challenging because of the physical, and subsequently psychological, distance between teachers and students (Glazier, 2016; Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008). Students often feel isolated and disconnected. Therefore, online teachers must find strategies to promote interaction and build rapport (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008). Walther (1992) suggests that constructing interpersonal relationships among online class participants is possible, but it takes time and effort. In his social information processing model, he argues that there is less social information conveyed through digital messages than in face-to-face interaction, and due to this lack of ‘nonverbal cues’, online class participants construct interpersonal skills more slowly.

Rapport-building in online classes is very important but also challenging. Murphy and Rodríguez-Manzanares (2012) summarise the challenges:

Challenges to building rapport relate to the geographic dispersion of students, the asynchronous nature of DE, teacher workload, limits of the software, and teachers and students not seeing the need for rapport. (p. 167)

Interacting socially with students can overwhelm teachers when they have a large number of students because it requires more time (Jones, 2015) and increases their workload. The change in the teacher’s role is a challenge. When students are not physically attending their university, the teacher becomes the main contact point in the learning environment (Buus & Georgsen, 2018).

2.3 Rapport-building in ERT

Covid-19 has affected teaching and learning in almost all higher education institutions around the world (Marinoni et al., 2020). To maintain instruction during the pandemic, most educational institutions had to adopt an ERT mode to ensure social distancing, regarded as the most effective preventative measure (McGrail et al., 2020). ERT is a temporary shift in teaching modes (from face-to-face to online delivery) due to a crisis (Hodges et al., 2020). Regarding teacher-student rapport, two main elements make structured online education different from ERT implemented in response to Covid-19. First, during ERT, institutions, teachers and students were not prepared for online education, and the focus was on delivering any sort of instruction regardless of its quality. The sudden shift to online education presented various challenges, including the need for technical infrastructure, support and literacy (Marinoni et al., 2020; Reimers et al., 2020). Focusing on how to overcome these complications resulted in overlooking affective learning variables. Second, the Covid-19 crisis disrupted the lives of individuals involved in the learning and teaching process. Students suffered well-being and mental health problems, such as stress, depression, loneliness and disconnection (Maican & Cocoradă, 2021; Qiu et al., 2020; Zhai & Du, 2020). In comparison to rapport-building in structured online education, rapport-building in ERT is thus both particularly challenging as well as especially important.

Many studies on ERT have investigated online classroom instruction and pedagogy, as well as the attitudes of teachers and students. Research on social and affective factors in ERT has highlighted students and teachers’ feelings of isolation and physical and psychological distance due to the lack of relational interaction. For instance, Maican and Cocoradă (2021) investigated students’ emotions in an online language class during the pandemic and found that students experienced negative emotions, such as stress, feelings of isolation and distress at the lack of interaction with teachers and peers, which they felt had resulted in their voices going unheard. Similarly, students indicated that classes being delivered online during the pandemic impeded teacher-student rapport-building (Hill & Fitzgerald, 2020). Teachers also reported feeling isolated and experiencing challenges in rapport-building in ERT (e.g., Moorhouse & Kohnke, 2021). However, less research investigated the process of rapport-building in ERT. Harris et al. (2021) concluded that conducting synchronous classes led to a more personal and social learning environment. Joseph Jeyaraj (2021) noted that strategies like showing empathy, caring and providing clear instructions and timely feedback helped establish rapport between teachers and students in ERT. More research is needed on strategies that teachers adopt to establish and maintain rapport and the challenges they face trying to do so. Glazier (2016) describes rapport as simple but significant ‘instructor-driven intervention’. Therefore, exploring the topic from a teacher’s perspective may shed light on teacher-student rapport in ERT.

3. Method

3.1 Autoethnography

Autoethnography is a qualitative research method that uses personal experiences (auto) to explore and analyse wider cultural or relational experiences (ethnography) and to bridge gaps in the literature, providing research that is accessible to a wide audience (Adams et al., 2017). It enables readers to understand cultural experiences based on a systematic analysis of personal experiences and incidents (Ellis et al., 2011). Autoethnography employs storytelling to highlight the value of a researcher’s personal experiences, relationships with others, and reflexivity and self-reflection in describing cultural phenomena. It ‘balances intellectual and methodological rigor, emotion, and creativity’ and shows the process through which people resolve their struggles (Adams et al., 2015, p. 2).

It is our reflexivity and understanding of emotions that give meaning to our experiences (Adams et al., 2015). The sudden shift to ERT in response to Covid-19 created new and unfamiliar situations for teachers in my educational context. Although teachers’ contextual experiences differ, following this research methodology can help us gain a deeper understanding of the situation. Furthermore, autoethnography can guide me, as a teacher, to ‘figure out what to do . . . and the meaning of . . . [my] struggles’ (Bochner & Ellis, 2006).

The main source of data is my recollection of incidents that occurred during the past year. To ensure the reliability of these recollections, I created an ‘autobiographical timeline’ of the most important events and then chose the ones most strongly linked to the topic (Chang, 2008). Five key events were identified and a short narrative was written for each event. I referenced my Microsoft Teams® recorded sessions, Teams chats and email interactions while creating the timeline. In addition to my stories, I interviewed three of my colleagues (X, Y and Z) to enhance data validity and provide data triangulation. Including people with similar experiences as ‘co-participants’ in this way is an important aspect of autoethnography as it helps researchers avoid the pitfall of depending on themselves as the sole source of data (Chang, 2008). In order to control for possible moderating factors, the three participants selected were colleagues working in the same institution and teaching the same subject in the same teaching context. During a total of 150 minutes of conversation, participants shared their experiences and personal narratives related to the following questions:

  1. Is building teacher-student rapport important in ERT?

  2. How did you build teacher-student rapport before ERT?

  3. How did you do so during ERT?

  4. What are the challenges you faced trying to build teacher-student rapport in ERT?

3.2 Theoretical framework

This paper explores the strategies that teachers adopt to build rapport with students. Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares (2012) provide one of the most comprehensive works on rapport-building strategies, which they refer to as antecedents or indicators. Based on a review of rapport-building literature, Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares (2012) categorize rapport-building antecedents in both face-to-face classes and distance education. They identify eight categories of general teacher-student rapport antecedents commonly found in face-to-face classes:

  1. Disclosure, honesty, and respect: sharing personal information, showing respect and apologising;

  2. Supporting and monitoring: showing concern about student success, giving praise and helping students with differing needs;

  3. Recognising the person: recognising students as individuals;

  4. Sharing, mirroring, mimicking, matching: sharing and mirroring body language;

  5. Interacting socially: participating in social interaction and using humour

  6. Availability and responsiveness: being accessible and providing feedback;

  7. Caring and bonding: showing concern and empathy;

  8. Communicating effectively: facilitating easy and smooth communication (pp. 172–173).

These eight categories are used to analyse RQ1: What are teacher-student rapport antecedents in normal circumstances?

Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares (2012) identify six categories of teacher-student rapport antecedents in distance education (Table 1). Due to the difference in instructional delivery mode, new categories, such as tone of interactions and non-text-based interactions, are added to the previously described categories of recognising, supporting and availability.

Recognising the person/individual
• Eliciting personal information
• Expressing personality
• Acknowledging the person

Supporting and monitoring
• Supporting and monitoring
• Praising
• Providing feedback

Availability, accessibility, and responsiveness
• Being available
• Responding quickly

Non-text-based interactions
• Hearing each other
• Seeing each other
• Interacting in real-time, face-to-face

Tone of interactions
• Being friendly
• Being humorous
• Being respectful and honest

Non-academic conversation/interactions
• Conversing socially
• Showing care and concern

Table 1. Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares’s (2012) categories of rapport antecedents in distance education (p. 177)

The second research question regarding teacher-student rapport antecedents in ERT is analysed based on these DE teacher-student rapport antecedents.

3.3 Data analysis

The current study adopted a deductive and inductive qualitative content analysis, following Elo et al.’s (2014) three phases: preparation, organisation and reporting. First, I selected units of analysis from personal recollections and interviews. Second, I coded the data using pre-identified categories. Then, I reported the results of the analysis.

Deductive content analysis is used when data organisation and categorisation (phase 2) is based on earlier work, such as theories, models and literature reviews (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005; Polit & Beck, 2004). In this study, I used Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares’s (2012) General Rapport Antecedents and Antecedents of Rapport in Distance Education as pre-identified categories for the data analysis related to RQ1 and RQ2.

Inductive content analysis was adopted to analyse data for RQ3. Categories were generated through a process of open coding where themes are identified and then grouped (Elo & Kyngäs, 2008). Data from the personal narrative and the three interviews was carefully examined for indicators of challenges and difficulties in rapport-building, and then these were labelled and grouped by the researcher. Three categories were identified: cultural challenges, institutional challenges and technical challenges. For reliability, the categorisation, coding and analysis of data was later reviewed and discussed with a colleague.

4. Findings

Findings on rapport-building strategies are presented in two parts: rapport-building in face-to-face classes and rapport-building in ERT. I provide personal narratives of five key events (one regarding rapport-building in face-to-face classes and four regarding rapport-building in ERT, the main focus of the paper). I follow each of these narratives with related experiences shared by my colleagues.

4.1 Rapport-building in face-to-face classes

It had been a long day, sitting at my desk in the teachers’ room! My eyes were fixed on the computer screen trying to finish some work when I heard a familiar voice calling me. I looked back and stood up in shock: ‘Khalid?! What are you doing here?’ I had taught Khalid the previous semester in the foundation program that our university offers to freshman students. Khalid and his two friends had come to class mainly to joke around and challenge me as an inexperienced teacher. That was during my second year of teaching, and I had developed more patience after a rough first year; I decided not to give up on any student. It helped that I was young enough to make my students feel I was more of a friend to them than a teacher. I cared for them.

Six weeks before this unexpected visit to the teachers’ room, Khalid had been in a car accident and was in a coma for two weeks. He woke up not remembering many of the details of his life. I had been planning to go see him at home. And now he was at my desk. He had lost a lot of weight, and his father was behind him. His dad said he had been taking him to familiar places and that I was one of a few people he could remember. I stayed standing there for a few minutes after they had left. Without noticing it, we, as teachers, deeply affect the lives of some of our students. It was a big lesson to learn at an early stage, and I have always been glad I did.

Realising the importance of the interpersonal relations we, as teachers, build with students, I always try to establish rapport with my students from the first class. I ask my students to introduce themselves and note down their interests, hobbies and aspirations. Students appreciate it when they are acknowledged as people. I have found that recognising and appreciating every single student is key to building positive relationships with them. Furthermore, being particularly caring and patient at the beginning builds the trust necessary for strong interpersonal relationships. I make sure I share some personal information with them and ask them about their needs and expectations. To maintain this relationship throughout the course, I check their progress and provide supervision and academic and affective support.

Colleague Y also sees that building rapport with students is fundamental as ‘it’s a teacher nature we want to bond with them . . . to connect with them and we cannot actually teach without that’. Colleague X thinks that having good teacher-student rapport drives students to study harder ‘because they know that the teachers are there to offer them [support] . . . the teacher is always there to listen to them’.

To help build teacher-student rapport in face-to-face classes, the teachers used various strategies, such as simply ‘knowing students and calling them by names’, as Z emphasised. Other methods included caring for students and sensing their needs through observing their facial expressions, noticing their successes and providing intervention when necessary. X added, ‘[even] if they don’t come to us . . . we could identify that this person needs something, and I could tell him. Please stay for a while. Let’s talk. In face-to-face classes before ERT, communication was immediate. X continued, ‘Many personal conversations happen, and many issues are solved in the corridor or walking from and to the class’. Before ERT, what students could not express using language (as it is a language class), a teacher could easily understand through eye contact and facial expressions. All of that was immediate and real; it ‘cannot be faked’.

4.2 Rapport-building in ERT

The country went into lockdown on March 23, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Classes were all moved online. As a result, teachers had to approach rapport-building differently.

4.2.1 The beginning

I went to my first online class and introduced myself while trying to throw in some jokes to create a good first impression. I asked students how they had been doing, about their lives and their expectations, and what they had heard about me and the course. I received a few answers, from the same students every time. I didn’t insist and assumed some students were shy about talking in an online class, so I skipped student introductions and started talking about the course instead. Under normal circumstances, by the end of the first class of a course, I used to know my students—their interests, why they hate writing—so I would be able to set the class tone and give most of them a reason to come to the next class. That day, it was just uncomfortable.

The first week passed and everybody was trying to adjust to the new situation. Students generally handled the technical aspects of the shift fairly well. On the few occasions when a student encountered technical difficulties, I provided support or directed them to the college’s Education Technology Centre. I still had that feeling that I didn’t know who I was talking to every day and whether most of the 30 students in each of my four classes were even listening to me! I decided, for the first time in my 10-year teaching career, to change the rules of the game; I allowed the use of Arabic in class and replied to emails written in Arabic.

4.2.2 The exam period

The exam period is very stressful for students, but during Covid-19, it was also stressful for me as a teacher. A few days before the first exam, a month after the beginning of the course, the university decided that all forms of assessment, including exams and quizzes, had to be conducted synchronously online with students’ cameras turned on. I thought this decision was unfair, not only because it was not announced early enough for students to prepare but also because it disregarded students with serious Internet and technology access issues. I pointlessly argued with the head of the department and then decided to let it go. I went to my class and patiently listened to my students’ complaints and questions, for which I had no answers. I didn’t know what to say but apologised for the very short notice.

Y stressed that to try to connect with students during Covid-19, he made sure to do two things: ‘I address [students] by names . . . and I try to reply to their emails as soon as possible’. Calling students by their names made them feel connected as ‘I make them feel that I care for them’, he added. X stated that he felt closer to his students when he used breakout rooms. When students did activities in small groups, ‘I call[ed] their names and correct[ed] them then and there. I [could] give immediate and personalised feedback’. In addition, X tried to build rapport by supporting students and addressing their concerns:

I make sure that I answer their emails. If they have questions, I make sure that I answer them, just to show them that I am there for them. Even though some of the problems couldn't be solved … the least I can do is answer them.

Z used a different strategy: ‘I try to make jokes and use Arabic, something I never do in face-to-face classes, so students feel I am close to them’.

However, many barriers prevented the construction of teacher-student relationships. In a language course, language can be a barrier. With the absence of face-to-face contact, students and teachers rely entirely on language. This can affect both instructional and relational classroom interaction. Y thinks students might ‘feel shy to participate in online classes’ when their language is poor. Unlike face-to-face classes, online classes are recorded and usually shared later. Therefore, Y explained, a teacher ‘cannot really talk to one student. You don’t want to. . . highlight [a particular student]’. In a classroom, you can have personal conversations with students.

Weak network connections hindered interaction too. Students ‘are unable to focus. They are unable to understand because it is only because of the medium . . . when the medium is not supporting them, automatically they are demotivated’, and ‘If there is a [technical] disconnection, then you cannot connect with them. Administrative rules and policies can also make rapport-building challenging. X commented that ‘teachers and students should be involved in decision making and when this is not possible, due to emergencies for example, policies have to be clearly announced to teachers and students. Students lose trust in teachers when they cannot provide guidance.

4.2.3 The university disciplinary committee

Being in direct contact with my students for the whole semester, I had sensed that students were generally dissatisfied with the online learning experience, but after attending the Disciplinary Committee meeting at the end of the three-month semester, I sensed students’ anger and frustration.

I had become a member of the college disciplinary committee two years before, which had exposed me to the negative side of students’ academic and personal lives. However, this experience also made me more considerate and understanding. Students come to class from different backgrounds. They are more than the individuals we see in front of us, and they are definitely more than the voices we hear through video conferencing.

The university had been closed for months. Four staff members and I were called for a student disciplinary meeting after final exams. The number of malpractice cases was three times higher than usual!

Students mostly did not talk about plagiarism and cheating but rather about the challenges they had faced in the previous three months. They were angry! One student seemed to put it all in a few words: ‘I admit it. I know what I did is wrong but nobody replied to our emails. When we needed help, nobody replied, nobody listened. This hit me and kept me thinking about my students for the rest of the day. I had 120 students that semester. I received dozens of emails every day!! I must have missed an email here or there. A student will always remember sending an email for help and getting no reply. After all, this was the only way they could approach us! I had had concerns about my inability to reach out to my students throughout the semester. I had tried my best as I had always done but this time, I felt unsatisfied and frustrated just like my students. Building connections with students was a struggle and I realized on that day that we had all failed. The students had simply lost their trust in us.

Colleague Y said replying to students’ emails was a priority during ERT. ‘I make sure I answer students’ questions and concerns as soon as possible’. However, he also talked about the challenges he faced trying to do so:

it takes days to solve an issue and takes 100 emails [laughing], yes! . . . it doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time . . . if a student has a problem and to solve that problem, it takes this [much] time, then I don’t think they will feel like coming back again to me . . . I think this is creating a gap between us and our students . . . and the number of students! That’s also a problem.

Colleague X emphasised language as a barrier that made it difficult to connect with students:

This semester I couldn’t help two students . . . they tried to ask me something and I couldn’t understand. When I asked them to explain what they wanted to say, they stopped contacting me. Maybe because they are shy.

When students came to campus it was easy for them to seek help and guidance from their teachers. There were various barriers to finding such guidance in ERT. Teacher-student rapport did not develop because teachers faced difficulties reaching out to their students.

4.2.4 Who have I been teaching?

It was the end of the semester and part of the course assessment involved individually meeting with students through video conferencing. I looked forward to these meetings, the first time I was going to see my students. Throughout the semester, most of them were just names to me; now I finally had the chance to not only see them but also personally talk to each one of them.

I knew my students only through very limited interaction in synchronous classes, emails and their performance on exams and assignments. On that basis, I had made assumptions about them. It was not until I talked to each one of them that I realised that this limited knowledge was not enough for me as a teacher to build a relationship with them. It struck me only then that I hadn’t really known my students. I had just delivered instruction without knowing who I was delivering it to or whether it had been received! I had not praised good students and, more importantly, had not been aware of who needed more attention.

This realisation took me back to an article I had read on the effects of Covid-19 on students from a student’s perspective (Wilson et al., 2020). I stopped at the main finding of the study: Students felt ‘disconnected’ from the learning experience. Only then did I realise what that meant. I felt disconnected too.

X described the experience of teaching synchronous classes with a large number of students explaining, ‘They don’t know us. We don’t know them; you would not really know who is who; you don’t know who needs intervention. In the absence of physical contact and with very limited interaction, you ‘couldn’t identify if [students] understood what you are talking about. Another side to the situation is that teachers ‘do not know what is happening on the other end because of the network issues’. Motivation and culture were not the only factors preventing students from participating in the online synchronous classes; ‘there are . . . learners who want to get involved, but online technical issues prohibit them.

5. Discussion

Teacher-student rapport is essential for any learning environment. Although rapport is mutual, it is mainly the responsibility of the teacher (Frisby & Martin, 2010; Glazier, 2016; Heinemann, 2006). Teachers feel the need to connect with students and thus adopt various methods to build rapport with them, depending on the context and available resources. In this section, Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares’s (2012) categories of rapport-building are used to provide answers to RQ1 and RQ2.

5.1 Rapport antecedents

5.1.1 Rapport antecedents in face-to-face classes

In face-to-face classes, teachers in the current study adopted rapport antecedents related to supporting and monitoring students’ learning and recognising students as individuals. Much of the rapport-building happened in the classroom where teachers knew the students (by name and face) and observed their interactions and nonverbal feedback. Interacting with students face to face facilitated communication, allowing for easier rapport-building. Teachers also perceived availability as an important factor in having a good relationship with students. Outside of the class, teachers responded to students’ emails and met students after classes.

Table 2 shows the antecedents that teachers used to build rapport with students in normal circumstances, classified according to Murphy and Rodriguez-Manzanares’s (2012) eight categories.

Disclosure, honesty, and respect
• Thanking

Supporting and monitoring
• Attending to students’ needs
• Caring about students’ success
• Providing intervention
• Fostering a friendly environment

Recognising the person
• Knowing students and recognizing them as individuals
• Calling students by their names

Sharing, mirroring, mimicking, matching
• Non-verbal cues: smiling and showing interest through facial expressions Sharing values and interests

Interacting socially
• Engaging in personal conversations (in class and outside of class)

Availability and responsiveness
• Talking to students after class
• Responding to student emails

Caring and bonding
• Caring for students

Communicating effectively
• Establishing immediacy

Table 2 Rapport antecedents that teachers used in face-to-face classes

5.1.2 Rapport antecedents in ERT

Due to the absence of nonverbal communication and physical presence in online education, teachers compensate in other ways to build rapport with students (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008). Similarly, in ERT, teachers adopt methods that differ from those used in face-to-face classes, mainly because of the physical separation. For example, teachers in the current study tried to enhance rapport through supporting and monitoring, but they achieved this through providing written feedback on assignments instead of observing students learn in the class. To compensate for the absence of face-to-face contact, they used other strategies, such as listening to students, using humour, and switching to the students’ first language mother tongue. Research on interaction in online education reveals that in the absence of nonverbal communication, students and teachers ‘make up for this lack by manipulating content, using, for example, humor, [and] linguistic style’ (Heinemann, 2005, p. 190). Despite the four teachers’ awareness of the importance of giving praise and providing intervention when necessary, physical separation and class sizes made it difficult to do so.

Showing availability, through quickly replying to students’ emails and messages, is perceived as important for rapport-building in ERT. It is how teachers can show their care for students. Email and messaging were used to complement communication in ordinary classes, but they are used as a basic tool for interaction in virtual classes. Maxwell (2015) found that email interaction does not help build teacher-student rapport. Because of high teacher-to-student ratios and low language proficiency, email interactions are slow and indirect, calling their effectiveness into question.

Due to various challenges (discussed in the next section), teachers failed to recognise students and to have non-academic and non-text-based interactions. Table 3 provides examples of rapport antecedents that participants used (shown in parentheses). Antecedents with an asterisk (*) are those that teachers failed to employ.

Recognising the person/individual
• Eliciting personal information*
• Expressing personality*
• Acknowledging the person*

Supporting and monitoring
• Supporting and monitoring
• Giving praise
• Providing feedback (giving written feedback on students’ work)

Availability, accessibility and responsiveness
• Being available (ready to attend to students)
• Responding quickly (responding to students’ messages and emails as soon as possible)

Non-text-based interactions
• Hearing each other (listening to students in class)
• Seeing each other*
• Interacting in real-time, face-to-face*

Tone of interactions
• Being friendly
• Being humorous
• Being respectful and honest (admitting mistakes and apologising)

Non-academic conversation/interactions
• Conversing socially (at the beginning of the class, through communication apps)*
• Showing care and concern (listening to students’ problems and helping to address them)*

Table 3. Examples of rapport antecedents used by participants in ERT

5.2 Challenges

This section addresses RQ3 regarding the challenges that teachers faced in building student-teacher rapport in ERT. As challenging as rapport-building is in online education (Glazier, 2016; Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008), rapport-building in ERT is more challenging because ERT is not planned or structured to allow for student-teacher interaction and social support (Hodges et al., 2020). In an endeavour to build teacher-student rapport with university students in ERT, teachers in the specified context faced, based on the identified themes, a combination of three types of challenges: cultural, institutional and technical. Notably, they highlighted that these challenges affected both instructional and relational interactions. When teachers face difficulties delivering instruction, building relationships is no longer the number-one priority.

Although online classes were synchronous, the teachers in the current study did not have the advantage of seeing the students face-to-face. For cultural and privacy reasons, at this institution, students could not be forced to switch on their cameras during classes. In other cultural settings, synchronous classes were found to have provided more opportunities for rapport building, both between teachers and students and between students and their peers (Harris et al., 2021). Nonverbal communication is a key element of the communication process, and it is missing when cameras are turned off. Students lose interest and focus due to the ‘absence of eye contact, gesture, and classroom atmosphere’ (Mohmmed et al., 2020, p. 6). Nonverbal cues, such as smiling and head-nodding, are significant antecedents of rapport-building (Wilson & Taylor, 2001). Language was perceived as another barrier by the participants. In language classes, it is not easy to connect with students by depending on spoken language only. Body language and facial expressions are particularly important in facilitating communication when interacting using a second language. Students with low language proficiency might feel shy interacting in online classes, especially because these classes are recorded. In a study on interactions in online foreign-language classes during the pandemic, students reported ‘shyness or shame’ because of their lack of linguistic competence (Maican & Cocoradă, 2021).

Institutional policies and decisions can also hinder teacher-student rapport-building. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many educational institutions abruptly shifted to online classes without being equipped to do so. This had a negative impact on pedagogy and student inequity and inequality (Hodges et al., 2020, Shin & Hickey, 2021; Teräs et al., 2020). Examples from the results of this study include an increase in teacher load and number of students per teacher (teacher-student ratio). Heavy workloads pose a challenge to rapport-building as teachers feel that they must limit their communication to academic discussion (Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2012). Furthermore, teachers cannot address students’ inquiries and meet their needs due to decision enforcement influencing the teacher-student relationship. Hodges et al. (2020) suggest that in ERT, institutions should be more flexible ‘with deadlines for assignments within courses, course policies, and institutional policies’ (p. 12).

Network disturbances and limited Internet bandwidth not only limit access to instructional resources but also prevent students from connecting with teachers (Aguilera-Hermida, 2020; Ferri et al., 2020; Hodges et al., 2020; Shin & Hickey, 2021). Out of 424 international higher-education institutions surveyed by Marinoni et al. (2020), 91% indicated that despite having the technical infrastructure, students and staff reported challenges communicating online. In a study conducted in the Omani context, limited access to the Internet for students living in remote areas was one of the constraints faced during the implementation of ERT (Mohmmed et al., 2020). Technical disconnection led to low class participation and after-class interaction with the teachers in the current study. As one of the participants indicated, ‘It is hard to connect with students when you don’t know what is happening at the other end.

6. Conclusion

In the beginning of 2020, most educational institutions abruptly shifted to online instruction in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my institution, teachers found themselves having to deliver the same content to the same number of students as they had had previously through the vastly different medium of online platforms and video-conferencing applications, making instructional and relational interactions challenging.

This paper explored teacher-student rapport, using personal experience as the main source alongside the experiences of three colleagues, focusing on how teachers tried to build rapport with their students and the challenges they faced. Comparing their rapport antecedents in ordinary classes and ERT revealed that during ERT, these four teachers adopted a variety of rapport-building strategies, such as interacting through email, listening to students during class, being friendly and using humour. However, the teachers failed to find ways to implement other key elements of rapport-building, such as recognising students, giving praise and providing intervention when needed. Sharing personal information and interacting socially, though perceived as important, remained out of reach after more than one year of ERT. Institutional and technical challenges hampered the teachers’ efforts to build and maintain rapport with students, leaving them stressed and unsatisfied with their teaching.

Further research on this topic should consider the limitations of this study. First, deductive and inductive content analyses were used to analyse personal events and interviews with three colleagues. The author carried out theme coding in the inductive approach and pre-identified categories in the deductive approach, and the analysis was reviewed by one colleague, which might affect the reliability of the results. Second, the study explored classroom rapport from a teacher’s perspective. What teachers see as essential for enhancing rapport might not necessarily be viewed as important by students. Researching teacher-student rapport during ERT from a student perspective would provide a comprehensive picture of the situation.

6.1 Possibilities?

This, I think, would be a good example that I’ve built a good relationship with my students . . . A student sent me an email about a problem she was facing in another course . . . she felt like I could help her’. (Colleague X)

Rapport-building in virtual classes is not impossible, but it takes more work (Murphy & Rodríguez-Manzanares, 2008). No matter the situation, teachers will always feel the need to interpersonally connect with their students and try to adopt new ways to build relationships with them. Z stated, ‘I’ll try to use personalised voice comments next semester . . . so when they listen to my recording, they will feel I am talking to them. . . . Things are much better this semester, compared to previous semesters, but email will not replace a real-life teacher.

It’s been a long day. Now I’m sitting at my desk in the teachers’ room! My eyes are fixed on the computer screen as I try to finish some work. I open Microsoft Teams® chats to check if there are messages from students. There are five new messages: two with concerns related to the course, two with teachers’ day greetings and one asking if I can talk to him privately. I reply to the five messages and continue my happy Omani teachers’ day.


This paper draws on research undertaken as part of the Doctoral Programme in E-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

About the author

Salwa Al Sulaimi, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom.

Salwa Al Sulaimi

Salwa Al Sulaimi is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University. She received a B.Ed. degree in education from Sultan Qaboos University, Oman, in 2009, and an M.A. degree in TESOL from University of Leeds, UK, in 2010. She currently works as an English lecturer at the University of Technology and Applied Sciences, Oman. Her research interests include technology enhanced learning (TEL) and classroom interaction. 

Email: [email protected]

ORCID: 0000-0002-2783-7279

Article information

Article type: Full paper, double-blind peer review.

Publication history: Received: 22 June 2021. Revised: 11 December 2021. Accepted: 15 December 2021. Published online: 09 May 2022.

Cover image: Dil via Unsplash.


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