March 7th, 2012

Building Rapport with Students by Sharing a Piece of Yourself


Teaching at a historically black university can have its obstacles; especially when you are not African American. One of the main obstacles for me was how I was viewed by the students — I often felt that students did not or could not relate to me. Standing before them, I did not have the appearance of one who has ever encountered any difficulties in my lifetime or career. As a result, my students did not find me very approachable in spite of the fact that I had mentioned many times that I was available during office hours and would be happy to speak with anyone. Once the students would make the effort to stop by my office, it seemed that they would learn that I am much more approachable than they had originally imagined.

I found that self-disclosure bridged the gap between the students and me and led to increased student engagement. In my case, I told them my educational history. I told the story about all of the failures, mishaps and bad decisions. I showed them the real me in a presentation accompanied with real photographs of key individuals in my life. My intentions were to let the students know that they can succeed, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may seem. At the end of the story, I realized that my story had impacted the students. Further, grades increased in my courses by about 20% after the talk.

When I spoke, it was to a very attentive audience that seemed poised at the edges of their seats. No one was texting or doing anything disruptive. They found out their professor is a human. Not a robot.

What I shared was this: I went to college with the goal of becoming a medical doctor and majored in biology with a minor in chemistry. During my second year of college, I lost my academic scholarship because I made a “D” in a course in my major. In my junior year after meeting all the prerequisites, I was accepted into dental school. Upon arrival at dental school, I found out I was pregnant. During my first year of dental school, I gave birth to a daughter. I discovered after the first two years that I did not like dentistry as much as I thought I would. I dropped out of dental school and began working as a receptionist. Due to the input and influence of a mentor who had taught me biochemistry in dental school, I applied and was accepted to graduate school. Because of this chance I finally had the opportunity to follow the dream I had denied myself all along … to teach.

Graduate school was a very difficult time for me and being a mom did not make things any easier. After the first semester, I was placed on academic probation. At the end of the second year, I took the written qualifying exam and failed. The director of my program told me that he honestly did not think that I could complete the program. One year later, I retook the qualifying exam and passed. Two years after that, I received my PhD.

All of these experiences made me a better student. More importantly, these experiences make me a more empathetic and effective professor. As a result of having told my real story to my students, I have become a “mother of another color” to many of my students and I am very proud of this title.

Feedback from my self-disclosure was all positive. Here are just a few of the things students shared in response:

  • I know you have to work hard to achieve your goals and now I know I can do it too.
  • It let me know that that even though I may start off bad; I can still have a chance to be what I want to be.
  • At times, i have been scared to ask you questions but from now on it won’t be a problem.
  • I now realize you weren’t given anything; you earned it all.
  • This talk makes me want to be like you in a sense because you were able to persevere.
  • You seem more approachable now and I know that you are not perfect. Most professors make it seem like they are perfect and did excellent throughout their career.
  • You are the best professor I have ever met in my life.

Being able to have an impact on students has been my goal from the beginning of my teaching career. I believe that my self-disclosure had a direct impact on my effectiveness as a professor.

Now it’s your turn. What are some ways you humanize yourself to help build rapport with students? Please share in the comment box.

Dr. Leslie Wooten-Blanks is an assistant professor in the department of biology at Claflin University.

  • Bobby Dean

    I let my students know that I haven't forgot what it's like to be a student and that I understand that "Life" happens.

  • Diane Langton

    At the beginning of each semester I add a few slides to my lecture such as "What I did on my summer vacation". It also adds that human component.

  • Dr Joan Pendergast

    Thanks for sharing your experience. This was an affirmation for me because I have self-disclosed with students my story. I see students who struggle because they are not achieveing or feel they are achieveing to the same level as their peers. I was that student and I share with them my struggles. To date I have not done this in a formal presentation but have shared informally. Having read this article I will give this issue more thought.

  • Prudenc eIngerman

    In the intermediate ESL college writing course, each week I write a one -page essay on various personal topics: home, trees in my life, a tradition, best and worst teaching of my parents, myself in ten years, etc. Each Friday I read one aloud and students then decide if they will respond ( one-page essay) to the title or to a line I wrote. SInce I am so much older than the students and relate poorly to their music, life and cultue, these short essays open windows of our lives to each other. They know I am the only person who will read these. Feedback is positive,and grading is gentle.

  • Prudence Ingerman

    error in name spelling above

  • Malissa Martin

    Usually the first day of class be it online or F2F I hold a 20 minute interview the professor sesion. Students are free to ask anything they would like about me. This has worked well in humanizing me with the students and engaging the students in a dialogue. If we develop a quality discussion I will add time to the session.

    I have also developed a ppt of my self, my teaching philosphy, and leisure actvities I often partake. I will ask the students to do the same or I will develop a screencast.

  • Stephanie Fiore

    I teach a foreign language and I am not native. So, in order to make students understand that one must take risks (and fail sometimes) in order to speak a foreign language, I tell them stories of my most embarrassing moments in learning the language. Here's one of my favorites: when living abroad in a home stay, I wanted to ask for a broom so that I could sweep my floor; instead, I asked to perform an explicit sexual act. I had looked the word up in the dictionary, but language evolves and changes, and it just wasn't used that way anymore. The poor woman turned pale when I made this request! When I tell this story (and others along the way), the students have a great laugh at my expense, but they also get that I had to learn and that I made mistakes and that I achieved fluency through trial, error and hard work. So that means they can do it too! it really works and it makes me human.


    Over the years I have shared some of my personal life stories, with the students and they have said that now they understand that we fteachers are human . It has made me closer to the students and they are more eager to come to me with some of their personal problems and sometimes before they get so insurmountable that they feel they cannot go on. I also want to show them by relating my problems from the past that they too can overcome obstacles. When I tho't maybe they were tired of hearing these they told me that because of these stories they could better relate to what was being taught.


  • Liz Lueke

    I love to tell "stories" about my kids and grandchildren. These stories make me like their own mom or grandmother. As soon as I say, "I have to tell you this story", they are all ears! Of course the "story" relates to the material in some way or to what someone has just said.

  • Angela Sinclair

    Dr. Wooten-Blanks, I truly enjoyed your story, it brought back some memories of the first time I taught at Delta College, and at the time I had never taught before, but I wanted to teach and wanted to help with retention that’s what my masters was on. I thought that teaching was as easy because I’ve always wanted to teach. I love working and helping students. I've worked with students who had all types of obstacles, language, color, academic, parole, etc. I'm very real with students. I look and listen to students to find out what they need such as coaching, tutoring, a group setting, whatever, and begin to try and assist them. Those three years of teaching were most memorable.

  • Inge Dorsey

    I really enjoyed this article and I could relate to it very well. I try to "humanize" myself in the following ways:
    – I include brief personal information on my course outline (family, interests)
    – I relate several "key moment" stories about my own student life (failing tests, dropping a course, mentors)
    – I share current "highlight" stories of my life as a mother
    – I have students write a brief paper "Tell me your story" in the first week so that I get acquainted with them
    – I attend student's events (performances, sports games)
    – I invite struggling students to meet with me to discuss their progress
    – I announce student accomplishments in class (academic & extra-curricular)

  • Kholm

    I am a former court reporter who continued my education and received my graduate degree. I now teach at a court reporting college. Court reporting students are required to learn the theory of the stenography machine then reach speeds of 225 words per minute. It is not an easy task. I share with my students how difficult it was for me to get to 225 words per minute. I also share with them how I cried because I failed so many tests trying to reach the desired speed. They appreciate me sharing of my struggle with them. I let them know if I can make it, they can make it too. That gives them the courage to keep trying.

  • Dave Riedinger

    I found your story to be very insightful. When I first started teaching, I was so worried about covering all of the content that I just dove right in with the lecture. I would annoy me when students arrived late because they missed important information. I must admit my first impression on my students was rather cold and all-business. Throughout the semester I would tell stories along the way, and the students really enjoyed them. One of my students suggested I should tell more about myself at the beginning of the semester. I took her advice and prepared a PowerPoint presentation of my journey. My students are more engaged from the start. I never realized until I read your article that my story was making that much of an impact on my students. We ARE human after all.

  • E Prinsloo

    Trust is one of the most important aspects in any relationship. Our relationship is a teacher student relationship where one is always very careful of what should be the boundaries. When you work in cultures different from your own it becomes even more important. We are busy with a research project where we are specifically looking at "feedback" and the impact of "feedback" and how students perceive and use it. What you most probably achieved by sharing is to indicate to the students that you trust them enough to share "private information" knowing very well that some of what you were willing to share is very different from the preconceived idea about the "perfect professor". They may now trust you enough to share their knowledge gaps not being scared that you would use it against them when assessing but that you really want to guide, direct, advise and support hem to become independent life long learners. I have worked with students from previous disadvantaged communities in medical school who made it into the system on merit but also really with many additional barriers that one cannot even relate to if you have not had to face and cross some barriers before. Thanks for sharing this. Even students who are taught in their second language who are expected to write and do oral exams in their second language may perform under standard because they can just not show you how good they are.

  • Leslie Wooten-Blanks

    I am so excited to get to hear all of the positive feedback from my fellow instructors! Thank you all. I like the idea of having the students tell their stories as well. At the beginning of each semester, I have the students make a "passport" so that I can learn their names and get to know them. On it, they put an interesting fact about themselves. I get to learn some very interesting things on the day they introduce themselves. Some were born in other countries, or with an extra toe, or have a twin, or do something interesting in the community. It is a great way to know the students, too.

  • Cheryl Hampton

    I tell my students that in 8th grade I was told that I was not smart enough to take Algebra and I made the mistake of believing the teacher and taking only general math through high school and college. However, I did find what I was good at and enjoyed. I have worked myself through an Associate's degree in Social work, a Bachelor's degree in Professional Communications and a Master's degree in Communication Studies. I now enjoy teaching full-time as a Public Speaking and Interpersonal Communications Instructor.

  • Pat Bennett

    I, too, have had to relate to students with the struggles I went through even as a daughter with a father who was verbally abusive most of my life. I have to be careful not to repeat myself and gauge the audience's responses. I share with them all semester in the developmental English classes that I teach. I think it has made a difference for some because they stay after and talk to me more and more. I like to be familiar with the students and have used journals to get to know them. They write about themselves a lot, and I add a personal note to as many as I can. I may say, "Amen" to show agreement, or I may had add a lengthy response. They eagerly look through their journals when they get them back to see what I have written.

  • mas

    I have always shared my experiences as a student with my own students. I believe that when students know we had also gone through difficult times before we reach where we are now, they would be motivated to try their best to improve themselves and do better.

  • Dernoc

    to relate to the colorful students (not just in skin – tattoos, life, etc.) it pays to share one's own color. this and the where and how life informs education and education informs life. Empathy, the sharing of experience on an 'I feel you" level, leads to collaborating to learn the skills of academia, as now reading writing and math are investments.

  • Chris Ramirez

    It was not comfortable at first, but as I have opened up to students, they were more open too, and tend to ask for help more. Now to ensure they actually make the times set up with me….I started off sharing how Math was a struggle for me in high school, and that now I love to teach Math, especially College Prep Math. I have selectively shared other unflattering details or events of my life to students who needed that to relate. You still have students who object to more "personal" sharing during the class instruction time, and discretion is needed, but overall it pays to connect this way with them.

  • Hello Dr. Wooten-Blanks:

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post.

    I immediately connected with the challenge you’ve discussed concerning the perceptual issue of being approachable. For my on-ground students they may be intimidated because of prior experiences or simply because of their inexperience. For my online students I find that they often speak up more often, because they are not visible to me and can post a message or send an email. That may result in messages being sent without careful thought, so I remind students about the importance of Netiquette.

    You’ve made a very powerful statement: All of these experiences made me a better student. More importantly, these experiences make me a more empathetic and effective professor.

    I could not agree more. That has been my experience as well.

    How do you decide the limits of your self-disclosure? In other words, how do you maintain the line between personal and professional information?
    Dr. J

  • Steve Lee

    Thanks for the article. I heartily agree. In my professional development workshop on learning from failures, I share my own personal experiences in learning from my difficulties and challenges. I think it helps students to see a longer perspective (since I'm older than my students) and they can see how we can still grow professionally through those difficulties. I also think it also helps students to be more willing to take some risks as they stretch and grow.

  • CR.Harris

    Great article! There is something magical when we as educators grant students access to our personal story. Many instructors expect the students to reach their level, but I disagree. As a good educator, one of our objects is to place ourselves on the student level and together we move upward. Sharing personal experiences allows the human side to be seen.

  • Dr.M. Youssef

    Sharing your personal story with students, opens up closed doors for introverts among students, and invites mutual sharing of hopes and struggles and gives the instructor more chances to understand students better.