Our Mission – Part 4: The “How”

headimagesThe second component of our philosophy (our ‘how’) is to create a joyful and inspired community that develops communication skills, critical thinking skills, and creativity in every child through relevant, hands-on, student-centered teaching. Joyful and inspired is our goal–there is no reason that school has to be a necessary evil in our children’s lives. Humans love learning, we are built to learn, and children even more so than adults. Environments that make learning miserable are getting in the way of the child’s natural development and purpose. We want to free them up to learn as they can, rather than bogging them down in the needs of the institution or policy.

Then we delineate some of the primary skills we are aiming to develop–reading, writing, talking, arguing, discussing, presenting, persuading, taking initiative, articulating thoughts, and speaking up are examples of the communication skills we are working on. Summarizing, inferencing, critiquing, discerning, connecting, dissecting, analyzing, deducing, and concluding are all examples of the critical thinking skills we’re developing. And creativity grows out of a solid subject-area knowledge base in addition to the freedom to take risks, try something new, think differently, play, experiment, build, try, and collaborate. The only way to practice all of these skills (and they need lots of practice!) is by giving students the time and the space and the context to practice them in relevant, hands-on, and child-centered classes.

It’s amazing how a simple shift in goals can change the tone of the entire institution. Most schools focus on achievement and academic and athletic excellence. They focus so much on content, memorization, test scores, and getting into college that they lose sight of the child who is in front of them. When we shift from achievement to joy, from excellence to inspiration, from product to process, and from content to skills, the atmosphere shifts entirely. The irony is that we can still achieve, excel, and attend top colleges, if that’s our aim, without sacrificing character, joy and love of learning along the way.

Our Mission – Part 3: Montessori

montyThe next part of our mission comes in the form of our philosophy. This is the how of our goal. We believe the Montessori philosophy provides the best opportunity to build confidence, character and leadership in our students. I could talk about the Montessori philosophy all year (and it actually takes a full year or longer to get a certification in Montessori because of its complexity), but I believe there are three primary reasons why Montessori is the best opportunity to develop these characteristics.

First, Dr. Montessori started with the end game and worked backwards when she developed her philosophy and curriculum. Who do we want our kids to be as adults? What skills are most constructive in adults? What character traits are most important in adults? She never had the adult far from her mind as she focused on the child who would become the adult. This is what proponents of 21st century education are just now doing — and it’s a good thing — but Dr. Montessori was thinking that way 110 years ago.

Secondly, Dr. Montessori observed where children are developmentally and built her curriculum and philosophy to work with nature, rather than against it. We cannot just decide to give our students confidence; they develop it as nature intended and we have to use nature if they are going to develop successfully — in this case by providing as many opportunities and pushes for their independence as possible. A dependent child cannot and will not develop self-confidence, for example. The entire program is build around who children are and how they grow, rather than on the needs of the adults or the institution.

Lastly, Dr. Montessori integrated the whole child into her curriculum. Most curricula simply address the acquisition of information (like spelling rules) or the practice of a cognitive skill (like addition), but Dr. Montessori interwove the practice of concentration, the practice of conflict resolution, the practice of collaboration, etc. into her materials, schedule and annual goals for the classroom. Respect of others is just as important (and therefore takes just as much time) as math or reading. If we value character, leadership and intrinsic motivation, we have to carve time to practice those skills during the week. She saw the need for the time it would take and set the precedent that we all need to be willing to give our values that time.

Our Mission – Part 2: Where Are Our Kids Headed?

TFS MissionThe first half of our mission is challenge with support. I wrote about that last week. The second half of our mission is really about where our students are headed. What knowledge and skills do they really need to live fulfilling and successful lives? We believe they have the best chance of a fulfilling and successful life if they are aware of the context that we live in (globally minded) and if they are excited about life (passion for life and learning).

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that children needed to begin understanding the world closest to them (their caretakers) and that the circle should expand as they get older (their families, their homes, their classroom, their school, their neighborhood, their city, their country, the world). This is more than geography, but it is not political. It is simply context.

What is going on around us?
How does it affect us?
How do we affect our world?

As children develop, they will naturally develop interest in the world around them, but it’s also a cycle: the more they know about the world, the more intriguing it gets and the more they want to know. Vision/life goals, compassion, a sense of purpose, respect, humility, perspective, civic duty, and intellectual stimulation are just a few of the characteristics that develop out of an interest in the world around us. From our perspective, the more they know and the more interested they are, the richer their foundation is for everything else they do with their lives.

We also want to equip them to approach life with zest. We want them to be confident enough to tackle life with excitement. We want them to have the skills and drive to continue to learn without grades or schedules or due dates. The primary way to do this is to introduce them to the intrinsic rewards (rewards that emerge from inside of us rather than rewards that are bestowed on us by others) of learning. Giving them choice in projects, encouraging tangents when we see something spark in them, Upper School interims, hands-on projects, sitting back and watching the students discover connections (instead of pointing them all out for the students), field trips and overnight trips, building multi-generational relationships, challenging them, and then celebrating with them when they overcome a challenge. These are all tactics to experience joy in learning, and joy in life. We live this mission ourselves, and then we pass this on to our students.

Our Mission – Part 1: Academically Challenging

Click to enlargeThe first component of our mission statement is something you should see in every school–to be academically challenging.  The second component, to be personally supportive, is rarer.  The two of them together create the heart of The Fulton School identity.  Supporting while challenging–it’s a dance.

Too much support with too little challenge teaches children that they can’t do things and leads to dependence on others, anxiety about new situations, and learned helplessness. Too much challenge with too little support also teaches them that they can’t do things and leads to discouragement, self-sabotaging, and giving up.  And if that’s not complicated enough, the balance is a little different for every child!

Another way we look at it is through the lens of an outdoor guide.  At outdoor education, we learn that we all have three zones: our Comfort Zone (which we all love!), our Challenge Zone (which we may think we dread, but which is rewarding after the fact), and our Panic Zone (we are so frightened that we can’t think straight).  They teach us that we really don’t learn anything in our Comfort Zone because there’s nothing new in this zone, or in our Panic Zone because we are too overwhelmed to take in new information.  We have to find our Challenge Zone to really learn.  This means there are new things to do or try, but that we feel supported enough to achieve it. It’s a challenge–not easy, but they are surmountable.

Finding the perfect Challenge Zone for every child in every subject and every situation is a lot of pressure on us both, as parents and as educators!  And it’s impossible. Let’s just get it out of the way right now that we won’t get it exactly right–you won’t and neither will we.  But our mission is to reflect, discuss, observe, debate, study, and do our best to find that balance for your child every day.

Rethinking Your Commute

My family is fortunate to live less than 5 miles from school. But I spend most weekday evenings driving my kids around town between sports, piano practice, jobs, and youth group. For us, nothing is less than a 30-minute drive one-way. On one hand, this much car time could be a huge hassle. On the other hand, I have one or more kids stuck with me in the car for an hour-plus every day. If we were home, they would be in their rooms or outside, but in the car they talk to me. When my oldest daughter started driving, I missed those conversations!  Luckily when the newness of her driving independence wore off, she often asked me to go with her again… so we could talk.

I know many of you have a long commute to school or you have friends who resist coming here because of the commute, but I challenge you to see the commute as a gift. Ask them to put away their devices and take out their headphones. Set the expectation that car time is “together time.”

Car time like this is called parallel talk and is a much more effective context for older kids to share than direct questioning. Stories will pour out as they process their days, their relationships, friendships, and events. You can:

Listen to the news and discuss it.

Sing together (or learn about the music they love).

Plan your dinner menus and grocery lists.

Or you can just be quiet together.

It’s in your power to reframe the commute that our location and the modern lifestyle create as a benefit of The Fulton School, rather than a liability. It’s a non-negotiable chunk of time for sharing and reflection. It is built-in quality relationship time — and that is rare in modern American life.

Introversion and Extroversion in the Classroom

unnamedThe faculty and I spend a lot of time discussing the needs of students, from both a broad, developmental perspective and from a personal and individual perspective.  One topic that comes up perennially is the role of introversion and extroversion in the classroom.  Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a NY Times bestseller since 2012, defines these two groups a little differently than you might have heard before, and I think it’s the best definition I’ve ever heard.

She says, an introvert is “a person who feels at their best and at their most alive when they’re in quieter, more mellow environments. And it stems from a neurobiological difference between introverts and extroverts. Literally, different nervous systems. Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that’s going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there’s less stuff happening. And extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don’t get to their sweet spot until there’s more stuff happening.”

Defined in terms of the external stimulation students seek, introversion and extroversion have a huge impact on what the ideal classroom environment looks like. In this interview with Mindshift at PBS, Cain discusses the impact on the classroom.  There is a lot to consider–not all introverts are shy and lots of extroverts are surprisingly shy. Some skills that introverts might prefer to avoid (class discussions or group projects) might be important skills for them to develop for a successful college and professional life, but we want to challenge them while respecting their natural inclinations.

The smaller environment at TFS definitely creates a comfort level for our introverts to grow in that would not be possible in a large school, but it also means that they cannot hide in the back of the classroom or blend into a group.  We are always working to meet your children where they are, while pushing them to move beyond their comfort zones.  It’s an art rather than a science, but it’s a high priority for us at TFS.

Small Schools Have a BIG Influence



Humans are born needing connection. We cannot thrive without relationships and the encouragement and accountability they bring. Humans have family units and close circles of friendship. We seek community in order to learn, grow, share our joys, and be sustained in hard times. So why then do we send our young into huge institutions to sink or swim, fend for themselves, and figure things out?

Small schools are very counter-cultural in today’s society — a society where bigger is better! And bigger can be better when economy of scale matters. However, when it comes to relationships, connection, people, and emotions, bigger can be overwhelming, cold, imprecise, and ineffective.

smallschool1To be loved and not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. To be loved and known is what we all want more than anything. [Tim Keller]  What small schools lack in options, they make up for through connection and that connection allows big things to happen. In a small, healthy environment, a student can be both loved and known — an incredible environment for them to safely face the inevitable challenges, joys, and struggles of growing up.

smallschool10Imagine a school where children (even teenagers!) see all their teachers as allies.

Imagine a school where children have the same teachers for consecutive years so they truly get to know one another.

Imagine a school where the teachers know each child’s writing style so well they can spot it as soon as they read it.

Imagine a school where assignments are tailored to the personalities and passions of the group so that necessary skills can be developed in a context where the students *like* the work (even teenagers!).


Imagine a school where the students follow the vast majority of rules because the rules make sense to them because they’ve had a say in creating them.

All of this is possible in a small school.

When students like their teachers and feel liked by them…


When faculty aren’t so overwhelmed that their calling becomes their burden…

When daily work isn’t dictated by politicians in offices far away…

When everyone has to get through problems and frustrations together…

When the whole community knows each other and shares similar values…


When children (yes, even teenagers) feel known AND loved…

That’s when magic happens.
That’s when learning happens.
That’s when growth happens.

Small schools have a big influence.

I encourage you to explore small schools in your city, county, state — wherever you might live. And if you live in the St. Louis, St. Charles, or Franklin county areas in Missouri, I personally invite you to come explore The Fulton School, a school small by intention.

How Do You Teach Character?

How do you teach character?  My answer is always through practice, practice, practice.  “By the time children are 4 years old, they often know certain values–that stealing is wrong, for example. Because kids tend to know values, they often feel patronized by lectures about values or just learn to parrot back what adults want to hear.” (Richard Weissbourd). We practice character education through our behavior, our expectations, and our discussions.

Every adult at the school aims to behave with the characteristics we are trying to impart to the children.  We talk to the students about our behavior transparently, we allow the kids to hold us accountable, and we take responsibility when we fail.  Kids have a keen eye for sincerity, so the character of the faculty and staff cannot be faked–it has to come from our hearts.  When it is genuine, it will color and shape the entire organization, and I believe we all feel the positive effects of the collective character within the organization.

We also expect the students to behave with character.  Holding our expectations high — whether that is through asking a 3 year old to put away his work or asking a high schooler to help a parent carry boxes into the school — creates a status quo of kindness and respect.  The stronger the parent partnership, the more continuity the students will see between the standards at home and the standards at school, and the stronger the students’ clarity will be about how to be a person of character.

Lastly, discussions are essential because morality and ethics are rarely black and white. There are trade-offs, ambiguities, and conundrums.  The more we work through these with our students, the more mature their moral logic becomes.  The more time we give to discussions and practice, the more we solidify our identity as people of character.

This article is a short summary of a great book, The Parents We Mean to Be by Richard Weissbourd, and addresses the type of character education I’m describing if you’re interested in reading more.

No Ceilings. No Hiding Places.

In our society we often believe that bigger is better. Actually, bigger is often better.  Bigger schools have more course options, larger social networks, and more money available for the “extras.”  But smaller has advantages too.  We are flexible and nimble, offer relationships over bureaucracy, and know your child very well.  We describe this space we create as one that has no ceilings and no hiding places.

Children at TFS have the opportunity to shoot ahead in math, to write their hearts out, to play sports that they often wouldn’t have access to (or thought they were interested in), and to develop communication and leadership skills that would likely lie dormant or unnoticed in a larger environment.  This is what we mean by no ceilings–we cannot offer every possible elective, but we can offer a chance to race against yourself.

Quieter students, kids who don’t fit in the “box” of traditional education, or children who are hesitant to take risks for a variety of reasons will often try to hide from their peers, their teachers, or even their own talents and skills.  Our small, nurturing environment creates a safe, well-lit place for kids to emerge. This no ceilings atmosphere is contagious, and those kids who used to hide will find themselves thriving beyond what they thought possible.

Our small size becomes our advantage, creating safety and nuance for our students to blossom and become the person they were meant to be.

Preparing for Life

We talk about being both college preparatory and life preparatory at Fulton School, and we differentiate it from being college “application” preparatory. Our culture can get distracted by the application process, focusing on college admissions while forgetting to prioritize what happens after the students matriculate to college, live on their own, begin working professionally, and making relationship choices along with a variety of decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

After students have chosen their colleges, they need the skills to be successful in a very independent environment.  Teaching a student how to learn is one of the most pervasive goals here (and fits snugly in the middle of valuing process over product and treating each child as an individual).

Some of the most important character skills your child can learn while they’re here are: self motivation, self discipline, self advocacy, delayed gratification, working through difficult relationships, sticking with something when it’s hard or boring, getting along within a group, and developing a solid sense of self.

Academically, we want students to have solid writing, critical thinking, and mathematical skills (versus regurgitating data they’ve memorized and no skills to do anything with that data).

Skill development is more of an art than a science.  It is an imprecise dance that changes a little with each student and teacher.  It is counter-cultural, so there is little training for teachers and little precedent for parents. Because of this, our partnership with you (the parent) is important. Your buy-in to the program is critical.

The more we all work together, the more we see the gradual transformation of our children into confident, enthusiastic adults, ready to tackle college and life with purpose and capability.