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 the paradigm shift that he has had surrounding the strategy of, “ It's Your Character Not Mine.” He shares how it can change the way that we see fault, take responsibility, and respond better in different situations as we go through the day.
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 teaches international baccalaureate 20th century topics and theory of knowledge.
John: 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 CharacterStrong with Bryan Slater.
John: Excited to have Bryan Slater back with us today, if you haven't listened to our previous podcast where he was talking about the temperature check that he does in his classroom, you need to listen to that. But today I wanted to invite him back on to have a conversation on leadership and Bryan, welcome back to the show, we're excited to have you, and I'm just interested in this paradigm shift that you've had, this key reminder that you've been using regularly in your work and it's this idea of 'it's your character, not mine.' Can you talk to me a little bit about that today?
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. So couple months ago I was reading a book written by Mark Manson, I can't really share the book title because it's not necessarily appropriate, your listeners can Google it. But anyways, in this book he was talking about the difference between the concept of fault and responsibility, and the difference between those two things. And so as I was reading this I was thinking about in my own classroom how in many cases I'll hear students say, "Well it's not my fault that this happened. It's not my fault that you," fill in the blank as the teacher.
Bryan: And they want to stop at that word fault, and they don't wanna address responsibility. And so as I was chewing on just this difference, like what is the difference between fault and responsibility? I started to realize that I am responsibility for 100% of the choices that I make, and so is everyone else around me. And so what that means is when other people do things that maybe are not my fault, that I still have a choice to make and I'm still responsible for what I do after they make those choices. And so as I started to think outward beyond myself, I started to realize that when people are making choices that bother me, or that really impact my own desire to be defensive, a student accuses me of giving them a bad grade on something and they don't want to take responsibility for the role they played in me assigning that specific grade. I find myself saying, not just to myself but outwardly, "What you're doing right now, that is all you. That's your character right now, it's not mine."
Bryan: And this has really created some good peace of mind in my own world because I can say as I look at a student, say, "Listen, the choices you're making right now are significantly impacting your character, and as a result of the impact that your choices are making on your character, you're losing influence in my life." And I find when I say that to students, obviously privately, I don't do this in public because again, it's my character. What I choose to do has an impact on my own character so if I humiliate a kid in the classroom, that student's allowed to say the same thing back to me, "It's your character not mine. It's your right now who are being disrespectful to me, Mr. Slater. It's your right now who are being unkind and impatient and not committed to my growth as a student. It's your character Mr. Slater, not mine.”
Bryan: And so having that idea that fault, responsibility, that move right into my thinking here about it's your character not mine, and it's my character not yours, and it helped me really I guess lower the defensiveness that I found myself having even after 17 years of teaching whenever a kid came up with their fingers pointed at me.
John: Yeah. That's so good man, it reminds me of something I heard once that seemed very closely related, and it's the idea of we're not responsible for everything that happens to us, 'cause I can't control that. But I am responsible for how I respond. And I just can imagine the types of conversations then that you can have with students by even having this philosophy. One, I love the practical nature, whether you use the exact line, "it's your character not mine," or, "I'm responsible for how I respond," or whatever it might be, but that idea of like we need something that helps us to kind of remove sometimes that defensiveness that can step in, 'cause so many times it's not about us as educators, and we're in the position of authority, we're in the position of leadership, so how we respond really matters when it comes to students.
John: So there's that level of if, but then also the teachable moments that can come from it. Have you noticed that a lot by taking this philosophy that it leads to more teachable moments with students instead of just that back and forth about maybe the issue at hand?
Bryan: Yeah I'll give you an example I had a student come up to me a couple weeks back and say, "Hey Mr. Slater, I need to run down," it was right the first class after lunch and student says, "I need to run down, my Uber Eats driver's here." And I looked at the student and said, "I can't let you do that. We had lunch, you had an hour to get this done," and the student says, "It's not my fault that he was late. It's not my fault."
Bryan: And I'm like, "Well, look, it's not my fault that you just approached me and asked me to break the rules here on the school," teachers aren't supposed to let students go down and pick up food after lunch, it's just how it is. And the student said, "But it's not my fault, it's not my fault," and of course I myself, it's my character, right? I made a decision to let the student go down and get the Uber Eats which was a poor decision of mine. That speaks to my character.
Bryan: So student goes down, gets the food, comes back up, eats it, right? And class ends, and then next thing I know I got a note from the main office asking me to swing by during my planning period. I swing by during my planning period and I am held accountable for not being a team player and following the rules and letting kids go down and get their food even when we were told we weren't allowed to do that. And my initial inclination was to tell my boss, "Listen, it's not my fault that a student approached me, it's not my fault that the student's Uber Eats driver was there," but if I left it at that, I was not taking responsibility for my own character, my own decision that I made there to undermine the very team player aspect that I'm supposed to be doing as a professional in the building, and that's not undermining other teachers and making them the bad guys while I'm trying to be the good guy.
Bryan: So, that was one of those examples where it was my character right there, even though it wasn't my fault that the student approached me and asked for me to break the rules, it was still my responsibility when I did choose to go against what I'm supposed to do as a professional. And it was a good lesson for me and again, my collagenous could have said, "It's your character, not mine," right to me at that point and they would have been correct in doing so.
John: That's so good, I love ... I mean just two things that are standing out. The idea of the number one way that we're gonna teach character and social/emotional learning is to role model it ourself to infuse it into the daily fabric of what we're doing, and I love just that practical nature of like when we can speak to the difference between fault and responsibility and when we can use key lines to enter into conversations that can become teachable moments. I think that's powerful things and I think we're grasping for, we're looking for ideas and strategies like that. We're a big believer that we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught, my guess is there's many educators here that are doing an amazing job at this but it's like, this might be a different angle. This might be another thing to bring some fresh language into something that you're already doing.
John: Or it might even get you thinking on, "Man, why do I find myself defensive in these moments when things like that happen, and what strategies could I use to help me to respond better to students because it's my character, not theirs." Right? Or reverse as you've said it.
John: So, awesome conversation, would love to have you on again at some point Bryan, I appreciate the work that you're doing, you've already shared but we'll put in the show notes how people can connect with you as you spoke on our last podcast, but look forward to connecting with you again at some time soon.
Bryan: Hey, thanks for having me, appreciate it.
John: 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, making it a great day.