3 Initiating Working Relationships in the Classroom

Before meeting with your group of adults learning English, you will likely be provided with some information about their ability in English. Review the resources in section A to give you some idea of what to expect in the classroom.

The following process is provided in five steps covering the first few weeks in the classroom. The steps often blend into each other and may be discussed in more depth later as you gain more experience.

1. Initiate relationship with classroom teacher or instructor

To initiate your relationship with the teacher, ask about his or her teaching experiences and what brought them to teaching adults learning English. These thoughts and experiences will help you get to know the person better and understand the appeal of working with adult learners.

You also want to learn how the teacher organizes the class schedule and promotes teamwork among the learners. As well, ask the teacher what benefits your team can provide in the classroom. You need this information so you are working with the teacher to promote a supportive learning environment.

The Teacher’s Perspective

The teacher recognizes that every class with adults learning English presents its own unique blend of cultures, personalities and age groups. The teacher’s challenge is to help the students “gel” and function well together to provide a supportive learning environment in the classroom. It can be rather like trying to make a tasty, healthy stew from a basket of randomly selected ingredients! Both skill and luck play a part.

In a well functioning classroom, students help each other and learn a lot from each other. They teach each other language skills, language learning skills, coping skills, and cross-cultural skills. An experienced language teacher makes the most out of the available resources from the students themselves and encourages teamwork and sharing. When problems arise among students, the teacher has to figure out whether they are caused by personality, cultural differences, age (18-year-olds and mature adults thrown together into the same class may drive each other crazy!), or something else.

2. Planning how to initially spend your time in the classroom

The teacher is your best source for deciding how to organize your time in the first few sessions. Classroom activities involving the nursing students include a) observing how the teacher teaches and organizes the class, b) discussing with the teacher what has been learned from nursing student observations and discussions, and c) interactions with class members.

Your understanding from observations on how the teacher brings the class members together is necessary for you to complement those actions. You will learn best by identifying the actions that you find helpful and discussing those with the teacher and your team.

In the first few sessions, the time spent observing will usually be longer than the time spent interacting with the class, especially if the class is at a basic level of ability in English. The teacher can often provide some ideas for health promotion that seem to concern the students. Discuss with the teacher how you could fit these into informal discussions as you are developing your confidence in communicating.

3. Organizing the first meeting with the class

When the teacher introduces your team to the class, ask if she or he would explain that you are nursing students who are learning to work with people in the community to help them keep healthy. The introduction should also include that you will be asking them questions that you will use to determine what health interests they have. You will only be keeping track of what they say. You will not be taking down their names. (Note: this is a required component of ethical practice)

4. Initiating contact with adults learning English

Start by having each nursing student introduce him or herself to at least two people in the class. If the class is at a basic level, plan on two simple questions, such as “What is your name?”, and “What country are you from?”. After those two simple questions, ask a more complicated one such as “How cold is your country in the winter?” Pause for them to respond and for you to assess their response. In your assessment, consider their words, facial expression, and body language to gauge whether or not they understood what you asked them.

If they didn’t seem to understand, you could demonstrate being cold. If they understood, ask another slightly longer or more complicated question (see above for video on initial approach).

Discuss the responses you receive with the teacher and adjust your questions according. The questions may need to be simplified or expanded to fit best with the knowledge and ability of the class. This adjustment will be an ongoing process as your team learns what the class understands and the class learns how to follow what you are saying. After your team has determined the type of questions to ask and how to deliver them, you will be able to move onto your assessment.

5. Conducting the assessment

Start your assessment in the second classroom session if the students are at an advanced level, or in the third session if they are at an intermediate or basic level. See Diem and Moyer (2015) chapters 3 to 8 for the process of working on your project. The teacher will continue to be your main resource as you work on your community health nursing clinical assignment or project.

To begin the assessment, your team needs to first decide on one or two health questions. Each team member then asks the question(s) to as many people in class as possible. You need to remember and record responses as soon as you can after the interaction.

Following the questions, meet together to discuss how each team member felt about the exchange, how the learners responded to the questions, and what they might do differently when they interact the next time. This is a short description of the assessment method called ‘progressive inquiry’ (Diem & Moyer, 116-119). From the beginning, plan on a using the following cycle when working with the teacher and adults learning English:

  • draft questions that you could use with the adults in the classroom
  • check your draft questions with the teacher
  • revise based on teacher’s feedback
  • use the revised questions with the adults
  • report back to the teacher on the responses you received
  • use the feedback to prepare the next set of questions.

The feedback from the teacher and each other before and after your interactions will greatly improve your ability to engage the adults learning English. This feedback loop will build trust and provide opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills in working with other professionals and people from other countries.

When learning to work with people learning a new language, you can feel anxious and a bit frustrated until you start to understand what works and what doesn’t. At the same time, think about how the adults learning English must feel. When you view the video on Canadian Literacy Benchmarks bookshelf of the woman with level 1 ability in speaking English, you can sense the effort it takes her to try to understand a question and find the right words to respond. When they struggle all the time, they are likely to feel stupid and blame themselves rather than realizing that they have to be patient. Other nursing students or people you know probably expressed similar feelings when they moved to a new country and had to learn a new language. Struggling with new words all day is exhausting. When the words start coming easier, be sure and reward the accomplishment in some way, at least with a smile.


Diem, E. & Moyer, A. (2015) Community and Public Health Nursing: Learning to Make a Difference through Teamwork (2nd ed). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press
Available from: https://www.canadianscholars.ca/books/community-and-public-health-nursing


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