Tools for the Future: Planting the Seeds of Responsibility
Posted 12/08/2019 09:24AM

Bullis sets the stage for students to develop independence and navigate all the aspects of their school life and beyond.


A Bullis diploma has always signified preparation. Yet from the school’s founding in 1930 as an all-boys one-year military academy preparatory school to the present day co-ed K-12 school it is today, much has changed regarding what Bullis students must prepare for, and how the School creates the conditions for their best possible preparation.

In 1930, Bullis School sharpened students’ academic skills to prepare them to pass rigorous entrance exams for acceptance and study at the military academies, and to follow a career of military service. The paths forward were clearly defined. The way up the ladder often went from preparatory school student to cadet, midshipman, and officer.

Since then, Bullis and the world beyond it have changed a great deal.

Today’s Bullis graduate heads into a wide world of possibilities and opportunities unimaginable in 1930—and a world filled with distractions, digressions, and a multitude of choices. Today’s Bullis students need to carefully chart their own paths and propel themselves along. In response to that need, Bullis intentionally cultivates responsibility, self-discipline, and habits for success that enable students to make their own ways, in—as well as outside of—military service.

A raft of abilities beyond academic preparation is necessary for students today—including real-world problem-solving skills, the knack of working well with others, grit and determination, internal motivation, planning and time management skills, and a mindset of curiosity. In its programs and in the dedication of its teachers and staff, Bullis works to cultivate all those qualities and more.

Part of the essential approach of preparation involves skills and self-management habits referred to as “21st-century skills,” “soft skills,” or “non-cognitive skills.” Mastery of these abilities predicts success even more reliably than IQ or test scores. Hard work and discipline are required, but these skills are not dependent on innate intellect—they can be developed. At Bullis, that is exactly what we do. 

We do it by setting the stage for students to develop independence and navigate all the aspects of their school life—and then we get out of the way. We do it by asking questions. When a Middle School student has a problem, teachers take time to talk with the student, but they won’t solve the problem for the student. If a student worried about a grade in a class shares that concern with an advisor, the question will not be how can the advisor help, but what can the student do to solve this? Is any work overdue? Does the teacher accept test corrections? Would it make sense to meet with the teacher during enrichment? By taking the time to ask these questions and by letting the student reach out to the teacher, the advisor coaches the Middle Schooler. This happens so often in the daily routine at Bullis that by 8th grade, a student can ask herself the same questions and come up with a solution. Parents report this sort of transformation in their children with both wonder and appreciation.

Similarly, Upper School teachers craft lessons that put students in the driver’s seat by enabling students to learn through doing and by trial and error. “The teacher steps aside to make sure the student has the experience,” says Faith Darling, Director of STEM. “Students don’t need a sage on the stage. They’re getting training. Confidence is being developed. It’s more about the process of that.” The actions that Bullis teachers take (and don’t take) send an implicit message to students. “It’s important to start. It’s important to try,” says Darling. “It gives them permission not to be perfect.”

When students begin to take responsibility and chart their own course, their parents, coaches, teachers, and friends see the transformation. At Bullis, we witness such growth frequently, and it is always a thrill. Upper School teachers rally around the idea, emphasized by Upper School Principal Bobby Pollicino in a staff meeting earlier in the year, that “students leave better, not finished.”

Bullis Senior Ariana Hurtado-Day can verify the improvement she has made. “I came from public school, and didn’t want to be here. It took about a year for me to open my eyes.”

Ariana herself made the change during her Junior year. “The structure in Mr. Zimmer’s class forced us to know what we were doing,” she says.

In Zimmer’s class, students tackle several problems as homework. Then in class, they review the problems together. When a student is at the whiteboard, Matt Zimmer tilts back in his chair at a desk in the rear of the room and keeps a watchful eye as students call out suggestions and the student at the board works through the problem. A passer-by might not think this was a math class—the class participation is that lively.

His posture may seem casual, but Zimmer doesn’t miss a thing. When he told Ariana, “Good improvement! I can see you are doing better,” the encouragement had a powerful effect in helping her realize her own progress and ownership of the situation.

“I didn’t think anyone noticed my improvement or how hard I was trying, but Mr. Zimmer did, and commented on it,” she says. “Teachers are always willing to help, always open to receiving email and giving extra instruction. Bullis teachers really want you to succeed.”

That insight kept Ariana on track last winter when she missed more than a week of classes after an injury required surgery. Her teachers were pleased with her efforts to communicate and keep on top of the work. “Great job!” she was told.

Ariana also makes an effort to stay conscientious and focused, and doesn’t jump in if other students complain about stress and tests. “I am trying on a different level now. Other people stress too much. The more I stress, the more my work is not so great. Now I just do the work.”

Ariana’s growing arc of maturity, drive, and persistence is a great success story. Some students are born with those qualities and their effort lies elsewhere. Ariana, who displayed a very different attitude during her first year at Bullis, finds her own transformation notable. “When I first got here, I was a really quiet student,” she says.

Today, she is hardly the same student. Now an admissions ambassador who shows the school to prospective students, she is also a peer educator for One Love, an active participant in community service, and a member of the girls’ varsity basketball team. 

“She embodies Bullis spirit,” says Katrina Hunter, Administrative Assistant in the Admissions Office, where Ariana meets and tours with prospective families. It’s the same on the basketball team.

“She’s a leader on and off the court,” says Middle School Assistant Shaina Chafin, one of Ariana’s coaches. “She has a great positive attitude. Her smile and her outlook on life are contagious. That attitude helps her lead on the court because players and kids gravitate towards that. It is refreshing to see someone her age be as mature as she is.” 

“She has definitely taken full advantage of the opportunities here,” Chafin continues. “I know she will continue to do great things in the future.”

Bullis School
10601 Falls Road Potomac MD 20854
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