Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher and has spent the last 15 years teaching high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics and Theory of Knowledge to 9-12th graders at Sumner High School.
We talk with Bryan about how he uses a weekly temperature check to get a pulse on how his students are doing. Bryan shares how this low burden, high impact strategy has influenced his teaching practice and helped him connect relationally with his students while also infusing social emotional learning like empathy throughout his classes.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Bryan Slater, who's an experienced classroom teacher and has spent the last 15 years teaching high school social studies in Tacoma, Washington, Lagos, Nigeria and Sumner, Washington. He currently teachers international baccalaureate 20th century topics and theory of knowledge. Bryan's passion centers on helping teachers and students understand the importance relationships play in developing a culture of learning and trust in the classroom. Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Bryan Slater.
John: I'm super excited to have Bryan Slater on the podcast with us. Bryan is not only a close friend, he's also a family member and that he's the brother of my wife. On top of that, he is one of the most amazing and skilled educators I have ever met. He is a presenter for us at CharacterStrong and does an amazing job with that, sharing his experiences, his knowledge. That's the main reason today of bringing him on. Bryan, I know that you do something on a regular basis that really has transformed what you've been doing and you were already doing great work.
John: Can you talk to me a little bit about this idea of the temperature check both at the classroom level and then even how that has grown to even potentially a school wide idea with your school administration?
Bryan: Yeah. Hey, first of all, thanks for having me on, man. I really appreciate it. It's a big privilege to have an opportunity to speak to your listeners. Yeah. Hey, the temperature check. I call it a check in. What I do is when students are coming into the classroom, usually I'll have them get into their Google Classroom and click on the check in link for the day. I essentially ask them how they're doing on a scale of one to five. I'll throw some fun options in there. One, absolutely terrible. Five, incredible, best day of my life or something to that extent. Then below that I'll ask them why and I'll leave that question optional.
Bryan: I'll sometimes elaborate and tell them it's none of my business necessarily if they aren't comfortable sharing with me how they're doing. I'll let them leave that blank. Just a real simple Google form that I create. If your district is a Microsoft district, you can use Microsoft forms for this. Basically all of their results spin into a spreadsheet. When you talk about cutting the fluff, what this does is allows me to quickly get a pulse on my students as they're coming to the room. I like to think of it like checking the climate, checking the weather outside.
Bryan: We do that before we go to work so that we know whether or not we need to have an umbrella if there's going to be a fire drill that day. We don't a lot of times check to see how our students are doing. What happened the night before? That's what this allows me to do is get a pulse on my students before I get to teach in history because I need to know how receptive they're going to be. That allows me an opportunity to see where they're at. If they check in at ones and twos and I have a significant number of students who check in pretty low, a lot of times I will tell the class.
Bryan: I won't ever share the student names, but I'll give them a percentage, an idea of what the numbers in that classroom look like that day on the check in. That way they can maybe be a little more empathetic toward each other and try to bring those numbers up. That's what I do with the check in. Just a way to get a feel for how they're doing. It's a couple minutes in the morning. As the students hit submit, I just read them. In many cases, I'll send an email to a student if they come in at a one or a two and just acknowledge that I've read what they submitted and I'm there to support them. If they left their why blank, a lot of times I'll still email and just say, "Hey, I hope today gets a little better for you."
Bryan: That's just a way to show the student that they've been acknowledged, that I've seen what they have submitted. I would encourage any listener if they're going to do this to only do a check in if you plan on reading them all and being responsive to the students who need some responsiveness.
John: Yeah. I mean what a powerful strategy. I mean to kind of go right to it, I have a few follow up questions to that, but one, even just on the practical nature, one, what did it cost you in terms of time to, one, get this kind of system set up?
Bryan: Three minutes. Two, three minutes. As a matter of fact, after you've built one, all you have to do in Google Docs is just go in and make a copy of the previous day. Change the date and you're ready to go. A lot of times I'll infuse some form of assessment questions on there. After I ask them how they're doing and why, I'll throw some questions from the previous day's lesson on there because I figure while I got their attention, I might as well see what they're retaining from yesterday's lesson. It just takes two or three minutes.
John: I love it. I think that answers kind of the second part, which is if someone's thinking, "Well, how do I respond or how do I view these when I need to immediately go into the next part of my teaching," but if you have that formative kind of assessment and/or entry task that's reviewing content knowledge, there's your time right there. While they're processing, you're able to then view those and then even respond in some cases. Is that how you do it in terms of giving yourself that time, the practical nature of it?
Bryan: Yeah. Honestly, I find myself reading the formative assessments data in many cases during my planning period because I do ... The students, once they realize that you're reading these and you're being responsive to them, they start to carry on running one directional conversation with you where they're updating you. I try to do one or two of these a week. I don't do these every single day because that would be quite a bit of time. It does take in terms of reading these ... I usually build about eight to 10 minutes in the beginning of my lesson if I'm going to do a full check in with my students.
Bryan: That's just to read and make sure that I'm being responsive to what the students are telling me. But anyways, it does take a little bit of time. I learn a lot about my kids. I end up getting a nice pulse on them and it continues on to the point where the kids end up pointing out that I haven't done one. If I go more than a week, they a lot of times will say, "Hey, can we do a check in?" If I don't have one planned that day but it seems like I need one, then I can throw one together pretty quick and send it out.
John: I just think there's so much power to this very, in the big picture, low impact/high leverage strategy. I think about even just that evidence of when kids remind you, that is showing what we already know based on research is the number one thing that students need to be successful on a daily basis is that positive relationships specifically with an adult in the building, but we also hope obviously student to student as well. That's showing that desire to have that connection. What are some of the power ... My guess is with this happening, one, I think about the power of just knowing the pulse of your class.
John: Because if you had like all of a sudden half your class that has checked in way low, my guess is there's days where you probably are like, "I can't teach my content. I need to take care of the basic needs of my kids because I could try to put a bunch of content in front of them. How are they going to be receptive to learn if they're not ready to learn?" Even knowing that is powerful, but then there's those individual cases.
John: Has there been any powerful examples either on a class wide where knowing that has really impacted and helped you to be more intentional or even an individual story, obviously without sharing names, but where this strategy implementing it over time has proved some pretty powerful results?
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. There's been several really powerful stories, moments that have happened via this check in. Last year, for example, I had a student tell me that ... He checked in at a one and then said that the night before he was close to ending his own life. As I'm reading these check ins come in, I see this student come in at a one and this is the student that pretty quiet, keeps to himself. Not a student that would necessarily wear his emotions on a sleeve. Pretty consistently quiet. As I read this check in, I realized oh my goodness, I have to respond to this now in a way that it does not draw attention to my own sincerity. It doesn't get out front and center and really ruin that trust.
Bryan: Quickly sent the student an email and said, "Hey, ask me to use the restroom in about five minutes. I'll meet you out in the hall." That's what the student did. The student asks five minutes. Raised his hand, "Can I use the restroom?" Yeah, no problem. That gave me some time to get something put together so that the students could be working while I asked my neighbor teacher to keep an eye on my classroom. Met the student outside and then he and I went down. Of course, I told him I needed to take action. As a mandatory reporter, wanted to support him. Took him down to the counseling office.
Bryan: We ended up getting him into an emergency mental health clinic that evening. Later, about a month later, the student wrote me a note and just thanked me for saving his life. That was just an example of how I think if ... In a traditional setting, without doing a check in, I'm not certain that student would have shared that information with me. This met the student where he was at, which was on a screen. Today, in the 21st century, as we approach ... We're 2019 now. That's where students live. They're on their screens and that's their most comfortable location to communicate. That's another powerful advantage to this tool.
John: Yeah. Man, that's incredibly powerful. I think about so many levels to that and one, I agree. My guess is he doesn't put that on day one of the check in. That implementing that over time, him probably seeing in more than one occasion and/or hearing maybe from someone else or seeing a different way that you are actually reading those and/or in different ways responding, that whatever it was that he felt safe enough because of the connections and relationship you had with him to share that and how that powerful that is that he had an avenue to do that in a private way that met him, like you said, right where he was at.
John: I just think about with so much that is on the plates of educators, it's so easy to miss something like this that you said took you all of three to four minutes to set up, that can be replicated each time that you do it. You're not doing it everyday, but you said at least maybe a couple of times a week or when you feel is appropriate. Just the power of that intentionality and creating that space to support your students and then the evidence that you have as a teacher of the data on the climate of your classroom is just powerful. Thank you so much for sharing this.
John: If people wanted to follow up, we're right around that 10 minute mark, if people wanted to follow up with you, wanted to learn more, is there a way? I know you're a busy guy, but is there a way that people can reach out either on social media to hear different things that you're connecting with and/or to reach out to learn more?
Bryan: Well, yeah. I'm on Twitter. They can find me @teachslate. That's Slate, S-L-A-T-E. That's where I spend a lot of my time. I do tweet frequently about the Seattle Seahawks, so please forgive me if you're not a Seahawks fans. On that note, go Hawks.
John: That's awesome. Well, thanks for being with us, Bryan. If you'd be willing, I'd love to have you back on to talk. This was kind of conversations on school culture, culture of our classroom. Ultimately the culture of our school. I know you've got some really solid thoughts when it comes to conversations on leadership that also connects. Would you be willing to join again, talk a little bit of leadership with us?
Bryan: Of course. Of course. You know where I live, so I mean, you know, it's not like I can ...
John: I will find you. Awesome. Well, thanks for spending time with us. Reminder again, we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. Have a great day and thanks for all the work that you do out there. Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.