The Field School: Character at the Fore

In 2003, a group of boys at the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland—most of them lacrosse players—conspired to cheat on the SAT. For a well-respected prep school, the scandal was a disappointment and a PR nightmare. For history teacher Todd Barnett, it prompted a career shift into the school’s newly created Endowed Chair for Ethics and a personal focus on what really works in teaching character.

Barnett brought in speakers, held conferences, and started student leadership programs. But the most effective approach, he says, was the Prefect Program, in which hand-picked high school seniors were paired with ninth graders to coach them in moral decision-making.

“The whole point was to get kids to exercise their moral muscles as much as possible, to think through things that might happen,” Barnett said. “Schools tend to have the attitude that things should be black and white. But there are so many personalities and situations, and kids are growing throughout school. Often in those conversations, kids were talking about the gray of the issues.”

Thinking through such issues—and how to help students care about them—served Barnett well when he founded the Field School, a private, all-boys middle school in Crozet, Virginia. The school, which has 50 students in fifth through eighth grades, has a stated mission to “develop well-rounded boys of character and accomplishment.”

“Character development is an appeal of our school,” Barnett said. “Parents perceive that this is going to be a big part of our curriculum, and middle school is a vital time for that to develop. There are lots of opportunities to reflect and learn during these years.”

Barnett believes the successful shaping of character happens in two primary ways at the Field School: through the modeling of ethical behavior by teachers, and how teachers and school leadership respond when things go wrong.

Barnett tries to hire teachers who exemplify the kind of character he wants to see in his students.

“I think about it with myself,” he said. “I feel like if I want people to be respectful, I need to be respectful of them. If I want them to be responsible, I need to model that in the classroom.”

The quality of compassion, Barnett noted, can be particularly challenging for boys at this age. He encourages his staff to treat the students with the kind of tender-heartedness they want to see emerge.

“The more you can show you care about them, the more it rubs off, and they are willing to behave in ways that are not necessarily reflective of adolescent boys,” Barnett said. “We do all we can to show respect to the boys, and they respond to us in the way we treat them.”

Children are bound to make mistakes, and middle school boys are no exception. Instead of dreading student transgressions, Barnett sees them as a prime opportunity for growth and for communicating each boy’s value.

“Kids get to learn when they do something wrong,” he said. “Those episodes get a lot of our collective attention. We call you out when you do something wrong because you matter in this community.”

For small infractions, there is a system of merits and demerits, with resultant rewards and consequences. In other circumstances, the school’s response depends on the situation, but reminiscent of the Prefect Program Barnett initiated years ago, it always involves a lot of discussion. Barnett has learned that in the case of dishonesty, it is best to engage the student as soon as possible; coming clean happens more often when there isn’t time to concoct a good lie. On the other hand, he noted that giving students reflection time can be helpful with interpersonal conflicts and other issues. In all instances, teachers spend a great deal of time talking through missteps with students, rather than just meting out punishments.

“We try to get them to a point where they feel remorseful,” Barnett said. “Hopefully this will help them think about things before they do them again.”

It is this modeling and careful handling of mistakes that Barnett hopes will shape young men who avoid the kinds of disastrous choices he witnessed early in his career. Field School alumni confirm that Barnett’s priorities and efforts in this area are compelling.

“In surveys, our graduates tell us that the character formation component is more significant than any of the other programs we do,” Barnett said. “They leave and eventually come back from college and tell us, This is such a good place and I didn’t appreciate it at the time. A big part of that is that we find lots of opportunities to talk, counsel, advise, and encourage.”





Catching Character: Teachers as Honorary Dads

This past weekend, fathers were honored with steak dinners, homemade cards, and thoughtful gifts. Great dads are worthy of gratitude for sure—and so are the men, including teachers, who make sacrifices for children who aren’t their own.


Consider Vohn Lewis, a substitute teacher in Virginia. Right before the fifth-grade graduation at George Mason Elementary, a boy’s shoe came apart. Lewis realized that glue wasn’t going to solve the problem, so he took off his own shoes and let the boy wear them so he could receive his diploma in style.


“Me being me, sometimes my heart leads me to certain situations,” Lewis told WTVR. “I said you can wear my shoes, man; I wear a size 10.”


Or consider Nathan Miller of Clark Middle/High School, who noticed that the desks assigned to his middle school classroom were insufficient for the experiments he wanted students to conduct. The school didn’t have funds for new furniture, so Miller went about fashioning lab tables himself, retrofitting discarded computer desks. He realized over time that the steel-tubed frames he first constructed weren’t sturdy enough, and he has slowly replaced each frame with a wooden one.


“When people like Mr. Miller are sourcing their own things to bring a better science environment, it really shows what kind of a person he is and how much he cares about our kids,” said Assistant Principal Lauren Dado.


Not only do acts of kindness like these provide kids with things they need—they also give them striking models of what it means to be a good person. It’s great to tell kids that kindness and self-sacrifice are important, but it’s even better to show them. As James Baldwin famously said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”


This process has been referred to as “catching” by James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In The Content of Their Character, a collection of case studies of character formation in American high schools, they write that

the articulation of a moral culture through explicit teaching is important…. What these case studies also consistently show is the importance of the informal articulation of a moral culture through the example of teachers and other adults in the school community.

And when those adults’ actions include kindness and care, strong connections are formed. Teacher Rene Trevino, a first-generation American who remembers the challenges of working while attending school, teaches science during the school year at an elementary school and during the summer at a gifted and talented camp. He has made a special commitment to kids from low-income and single-parent families; he said students sometimes slip and call him “Dad.”


“I don’t mind,” Trevino told The Monitor. “We grow strong bonds together.”


Such bonds provide kids with support and encouragement they may not receive at home; a loving connection also increases the potential impact on shaping character, as kids want to emulate those they admire. As Hunter and Olson note in their discussion of catching,

For this reason, identifying and hiring the right teachers—those who are both knowledgeable and skilled as teachers but also models of the virtues the schools wanted to instill—was a vital concern in all of the schools [studied].

To the teachers who act as honorary dads and to the principals who help hire them—many of whom are modeling strong character without even realizing it—we say “thank you.”

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Charles Glenn on Islamic High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.

Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious) to homeschools and others. In this interview, sociologist Charles Glenn talks with CultureFeed Editor Joanna Breault about the development of personal and civic virtues at Islamic schools.