Some time ago, an English teacher in a Facebook group expressed her surprise about a student who had told her how important it was for him to have a good and personal relationship with the teacher.

Being as much a teacher as a student, I know 1:1 sessions from both perspectives and the importance of a good and personal relationship between a teacher and a student doesn’t surprise me at all.

How a teacher changed my life with his personal approach towards students

When I was seventeen, I attended a technical college with a focus on Economics. I had given up on maths, hated chemistry and my chemistry teacher and was struggling terribly with economics. I was about to quit and forget about my graduation.

However, my economics teacher was also our class teacher and he was amazing. We went on two class trips with him and he invited us to his house twice a year. At school, he was also very approachable. It was always possible to talk to him after class.

He took me aside several times. Sometimes, he would explain something a second time because he had noticed that I hadn’t understood it in class. But most of the time, he would just encourage and motivate me. Without him, I would have never graduated.

He was personal and professional at the same time. We respected him but we also trusted and liked him and he’s still a role model for me.

I’m convinced that both sides – being professional and being personal – are extremely important, even more so when you teach 1:1.

Let me quickly outline some typical characteristics of a professional and a personal approach. It may sound exaggerated but believe me, I’ve met both of these extreme types:

The professional approach

  • short small talk phase in the beginning, most likely just pleasantries like “How are you?”
  • teacher never asks personal questions and doesn’t want to know about the students week/weekend
  • teacher jumps straight into the lesson’s topic
  • teacher told student before the start of the lesson what the lesson will be about and is determined to cover everything during the session time you have agreed upon
  • teacher corrects student with expertise and answers language-related questions efficiently
  • teacher asks at the end of the lesson if anything remained unclear and is very likely to assign a homework which related to the topic covered during the session

The personal approach

  • teacher is interested in the student and his/her life
  • teacher will refer to things the student told him during the last session and will ask follow-up question
  • teacher will talk a lot about himself
  • teacher often forgets to correct the student because the conversation is so interesting
  • teacher is easy to talk to, student is not afraid to make mistakes
  • usually no homework is given, lesson may end abruptly
  • student doesn’t see much progress

As you can see, I listed both the positive and the negative aspects of the professional and the personal approach of teaching a language. And because there are positive and negative aspects, I try to mix and apply the positive aspects of both approaches in my lessons.

Does your personality match with your student’s personality?

However, you need to keep in my mind that it depends on the student, too. There are people who simply don’t want to share personal stuff with their teachers.

In this case, you need to decide if that’s all right for you. You need to know your own personality. If you feel better when you can keep a professional distance, you will get along well with such students.

For me, those students are the hardest to work with. As an introvert, I don’t like small talk but at the same time, I’m capable of telling you about my whole life the first time we meet.

And I’m like that as a student, too. I belong to those students who can spend an hour talking about all kind of topics they’re interested in or telling you in detail what they did last week or what plans they have. In order to do that, the student needs to have a good level, of course.

As a teacher, you have to take care that you still find ways to help the student improve. Don’t get just engaged in the conversation. That’s a trap many inexperienced teachers fall into when speaking to talkative students.

Keep in mind that the student pays you for your services, so make notes, write down corrections and offer suitable words and expressions when the student gets stuck.

Be brave, be more personal

By reading this article, you will have noticed that I’d like to encourage you to develop a more personal relationship with your students. However, you should be aware that this involves more than how you conduct your classes.

What if you need or want to raise your prices?

This was and is my biggest concern. I will never have a typical business mindset and if I could miraculously get money from some mysterious source, I’d rather charge US10.00 than US$30.00 for my lessons. However, I have to pay my bills, too. But most of my students know and understand this, especially those I have a good and personal relationship with.

As a result of our personal relationship, I know many of my students quite well. So when I raise my prices and realise it might be a real problem for someone, I get in touch with the person and try to find a solution that both of us can live with.

What if the student doesn’t want to continue working with you?

It has happened to me that students I really liked suddenly disappeared and I never heard from them again. That’s a bit sad but these things happen. Nowadays I’m friends with some of my students (and former students) on Facebook and I’m also running a group for my students. However, I always make it clear that they’re not obliged to stay with me forever but that we can nevertheless keep in touch.

Last not least, you should keep in mind that there are various degrees of personal relationships. In most cases, it will be a mixture of a personal and a professional relationship. If it develops into a real friendship, it might be better to stop having lessons together. That’s what I did with Luciana who used to be my Portuguese teacher and is now one of my best friends.

I know that not everyone will agree with me and that’s fine. We’re people, we’re different and that’s why we need teachers with different approaches. There’s never just one way.

Any thoughts or comments? 

Author: Daniela

Hi! I'm Daniela - a native German who's living as a digital nomad in Latin America. Besides making a living teaching German, I'm constantly trying to improve my Spanish and Portuguese. On my blog, I write articles for (aspiring) language teachers to help them get started and for people who want to travel the world and make some extra cash teaching offering quality language lesson.

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One thought on “Professional or personal approach – What kind of teacher are you?

  1. Thank you, Daniela. This is really helpful information. I find that for the first few weeks, I fall into the professional category, almost 100%. But not because I don’t want to know about my students. I tend to be shy about asking people personal questions. I have no problem when someone asks me about my life, but I have a hard time asking others. I wait for them to volunteer what they feel comfortable sharing with me. So, depending on the student, it may take quite a while for me to get from total professional and somewhat removed teacher to a personal relationship. Oddly enough, I currently work with a student in person 1:1 who is 100% professional, so much so, that we exchange nothing personal, except for an initial “How are you today”. The student is nice, but she does not encourage any personal conversation, whatsoever. She is completely focused on the task of learning the specific German she needs to translate a certain book, and she has zero interest in any kind of personal small talk. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but it gives me insight into how students can feel when I am so introverted at the outset of lessons. Something I need to work on.

    Posted on 7. February 2017 at 23:22