A conversation with Schools That Can’s Kristin Fulton

“I think [the students] have found some ownership in taking charge of their education. I think students right now are showing up and saying, I need X, Y, and Z in order to succeed. And they’re really finding their voice. I think they’re able to find their voice and say, this is my education. This is my future on the line. I’m having to deal with X, Y, and Z at home, but I still need to continue to thrive academically.”

Kristin Fulton is the Development and Operations Manager for Schools That Can, a national education nonprofit that is building an education to employment pathway for students in low-income schools.

In episode 24 of Control the Room, Douglas speaks with Kristin about closing the opportunity and skills gap, teaching confidence, and the tipping point at which students become leaders. Listen in to find out how Kristin utilizes her MFA in Acting in her work with Schools That Can.

Show Highlights

[3:08] Closing the opportunity and skills gap
[7:40] The Design Challenge & Fellowship
[13:20] Learning confidence
[15:55] The tipping point
[26:55] How Kristin applies her MFA in Acting to her work
[30:30] Staying the Course

Kristin on LinkedIn
Schools That Can

About the Guest

Kristin believes every child deserves the best education regardless of their racial or economic background. In addition to working in the nonprofit sector, She volunteers with several organizations dedicated to the advancement of civil and human rights. Kristin not only supports education – she’s also an actor and holds an MFA in Acting from Brooklyn College. She also earned a BA in Communication Studies and Spanish Literature from Fairleigh Dickinson University. 

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings. 

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

This episode is brought to you by MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. At Voltage Control, we use MURAL to facilitate engaging and productive meetings and workshops from anywhere. MURAL gives teams the means, methods, and freedom to collaborate visually. Use their suite of facilitation superpowers to control the virtual room. And solve tough problems as a team with their pre-built templates and guided methods. To see for yourself why companies like IBM, Atlassian, and E-Trade rely on MURAL, start your 30-day-trial, at mural.co. That’s, mural.co.

Today, I’m with Kristin Fulton, the Development and Operations Manager for Schools That Can, a national education nonprofit, that is building an education to employment pathway, that closes the opportunity and skills gap. Welcome to the show, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Douglas: Of course. So, for starters would love to hear a little bit about how you got your start.

Kristin: Sure. So my start with Schools That Can, it came…almost one of those things that seems random, but happened for a very specific reason. I had originally applied for a job at Schools That Can after learning about the organization from my sister, who is a teacher. She’s a teacher in North public schools, and she had initially worked with the organization through her school and was very fond of it, loved the people who work there, and saw the notice for a part-time programming manager. 

And so I initially applied for that job. At the same time, I found out that I got into grad school. And that I was moving from New Jersey to New York. And so I ended up not taking the job with Schools That Can, but then several months later, an opening came up in the New York city office. And so they reached out to me just out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting it.

But they reached out to me and said, we found your resume from the New York office, we’re interested in interviewing you for this position. Are you still interested in our organization? And from there, I started working with them part-time, which was great because I was still in school. And kind of moved my way up through the development department to where I am now.

Douglas: Excellent. So tell us a little bit about the work that you do there, and why this project is so important.

Kristin: Absolutely. So I’ll start with our mission. So Schools That Can, builds an education to employment pathway that closes the opportunity and skills gap. And I start there because it’s really important to understand how we’re working, what we’re working toward, and the folks that we’re impacting. Education to employment is so important because, very often –  and this is statistically proven – employers are often saying, we want to hire students who have these skills, but they don’t have these skills.

And some of the skills are definitely hard skills that they’ll need to learn through their education. But some of them are also just soft skills. Communication, critical thinking, decision-making collaboration, all of those things. And so our organization thought, through a lot of strategic planning and through research and time we thought, how do we really prepare students to enter the workforce from the beginning? So we work in K through 12, and we work cross-sector, which means that we work with district, independent and charter schools.

And we work from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade to really make sure that we’re able to provide programs that do just that. That build on all of those skills. So students are learning those soft skills that are super important. And at the same time, they’re also learning those hard skills, things that they’ll need for STEM jobs, things they’ll need for engineering and math and so forth. Things they’ll need for finance. Or things they’ll need for even just getting an internship.

What are those skills that will really support the students as they move forward in their academic and professional careers? And so that’s the bulk of our work. And I should also mention that the way we do this is through a concept called real-world learning. Which for those who are not in education, real-world learning is this concept that means it’s active and it’s applied, and grounded, and the world beyond school walls. So we’re not just sticking to traditional teaching models.

We’re really saying, how do we integrate the real world? What you’ll actually be doing once you get out there in the classroom, how do we bridge that gap? And so that’s the overall view of what we’re doing. And it’s really inspiring because once we get to see the students doing the actual work through our programs, it really reinforces, at least for me, it reinforces exactly why we’re working so hard every day.

Douglas: And so let’s talk a little bit about- I think the soft skills work that you’re doing is really fascinating, especially as it relates to this podcast. And our listeners are really keen on how to improve meetings, and bettering their facilitation skills or helping their organizations have more facilitated leadership. And I’m really curious around those soft skill efforts and what work you’re doing there.

Kristin: Absolutely. So, as I mentioned the soft skills that we’re building, we’re trying to build them all the way from kindergarten up to high school. And so things like critical thinking, things like collaboration, very often, we’ll hear from employers, our students are great or- not the students that are great, but the folks that we hire are great on paper- but they really don’t know how to make a decision.

They don’t know how to work in groups. They don’t know how to apply thinking outside of specific direct instruction. What is their creative process? How are they able to really translate this into something that’s more than just, A+B=C. What are the next steps? And so really trying to figure how do we inspire the students? How do we teach this? Because it’s not something that is very common in terms of like, when you’re at home and you’re thinking, what- I’m going to teach my kid soft skills.

I mean it’s something like, how do you teach that? How do you integrate that? But how do you also integrate that within the traditional standards of learning? Schools still have to prepare for testing. They still have to meet those benchmarks for their schools. So how do we do that in a way that really serves the school? The students? And their future employers?

Douglas: And so, in what ways do you think students are prepared to be good collaborators?

Kristin: To be good collaborators. One of the programs that hits home for me is a program geared toward our middle school students. And it’s called the Design Challenge and Fellowship. And part of the program it works with students and teachers, but on the students side it’s a real out of the box learning experience for them. Students have to work in teams. Typically when we’re meeting in person, they would work in teams with individuals whom they don’t know.

So it is that moment of like, I’m starting a new job. These are my new co-workers. And we have to work together to get our work done, to provide solutions that will satisfy our clients, or our company and so forth. And so it’s really impressive to see the students at the beginning of the day, they’re very shy. They’re not talking to the other kids that they don’t know, or they’re not talking to the adults who come from different community organizations and corporate organizations, we have volunteers who come in and work with them.

They’re very shy and not talking to anyone. And by the end of the day, they are taking charge. They are leading the presentations, they have ideas, they are throwing ideas out, ideas that are beyond this world, and ideas that may not work for the specific project, but are still exciting. And it’s just a way of saying, let’s try this thing.

Maybe it doesn’t work, but we’re going to try it anyway. And to watch the students go from that journey, it really does build on their collaboration. They then are able to say, okay, I can do this in the classroom, or I can do this… Once they get to high school and they remember, oh, I did this in Design Challenge. I can do this at my internship, or my part-time job. And then they’ll be able to continue to do that and move forward.

Douglas: So when you think about good meeting skills and how students might be better prepared for the workforce, what sorts of things come to mind as you think about the programming you’re already working on? Or things that you guys aspire to do?

Kristin: Absolutely. I think for all of us as we adjust to, we’re still adjusting, right? To this remote learning this, not remote learning, I’m sorry, remote working, this virtual working, we’re all starting to really have to evaluate and build our own meeting skills, particularly with virtual meetings. What does it mean to be engaged? What does it mean to be a participant in a way where we’re not sitting in a room, and you might be able to jot something down on a dry erase board, or just walk over and put this idea on the board and say, hey, I’m putting this post-it up.

How do I still become engaged? How do I also become an out of the box thinker in terms of the work that I’m doing? Because now it’s all online. For meetings in general, I think that’s something that we’re all having to tackle. I think this current generation of students, even though it’s very difficult for them, I think they will have a leg up as they start to move into the traditional world and start to have their own work-related meetings, or class-related meetings.

They’ll be able to really utilize this time and say, okay, we did this while we were quarantined. I understand what it means to be on a Zoom call and to participate in this classroom, meeting this way and so forth. So I think, for all of us we’re evaluating what it means to really be in a good meeting. And I think it is about, what does it mean to really bring the work that you’re doing physically into this collaborative space.

Douglas: In what ways have you seen the students really thrive in this era?

Kristin: Oh, I think students have… The students that we’re working with, we traditionally work in low income neighborhoods and schools. So we are definitely trying to affect and bring change to the students who don’t necessarily have the resources and services that their higher income peers do. And so in this time, as we’re trying to figure out, okay, we have to serve them in the best way possible so that they can continue to have a quality education.

And I think in our research and connecting with them and asking, what do you need? What are your struggles? I think they have found some ownership in taking charge of their education. I think students right now are showing up and saying, I need X, Y, and Z in order to succeed. And they’re really finding their voice. If that makes sense. I think they’re able to find their voice and say, this is my education.

This is my future on the line. I’m having to deal with X, Y, and Z at home, but I still need to continue to thrive academically. And I think it’s a real sense of ownership. Which I think will definitely carry them forward as they move through life just owning your work, owning your project, owning your job. So I think that’s something that’s really sticking out to me.

Douglas: Interesting. So that sense of ownership, I never really thought of that as, that’s something that has to be learned. Whether that’s observed through a role model, or whether that’s observed in school or some kind of training. Or through peers at a first job. So that’s really fascinating that the sense of ownership can be instilled as a learned skill.

Kristin: Oh, absolutely. I think when we think about, or I should say when I think about my own journey, and what it means for me to have confidence in something. I think about that first moment when I approached whatever the situation was, whether it’s a work-related project, or a personal project, and I’m thinking, okay, I’m going to do this thing. I don’t really know exactly how I’m going to get it done, but I’m going to try, I’m going to do it.

And then by the time I get to maybe another round of it, or the end of the project, I know that I’m like, oh yeah, I have no doubt in my mind that I’ll be able to achieve these goals. But that’s also something that you have to experience. It’s back to that idea of real world learning. It’s definitely something that you have to apply. It has to be active. You can’t necessarily learn confidence without being put in situations in which you were challenged.

You can’t learn confidence or develop confidence without having to go through some sort of challenge that will make you think, that will probably seem scary at first. But then when you come out on the other side, it will seem like it was just nothing. You’re like, whoa, okay, I can do this. And I think that’s important to know that, or to note, is that students who don’t have those opportunities often, will not develop those skills. And so that’s part of what we do. We have to give them those opportunities.

Douglas: That’s amazing. It seems like it’s one of those… Expert, what do they call it, the curse of knowledge or the expert phenomenon? It’s like, once you know that that’s important, it’s hard to realize what it’s like to not have that or to not see it or not understand-

Kristin: 100%.

Douglas: -the importance. Yeah. People just take it for granted. And say, that’s great that you’re creating those opportunities because it’s so needed. And when we talk about great meetings, and great facilitation techniques, we’re trying to tap into that. We’re trying to nurture that in people. And if people don’t understand that that’s important, that seed has to be planted before we end the meeting, trying to encourage that behavior.

And so it’s really great that you guys are thinking about that work. I guess, what are you noticing as far as like, are there tipping points for folks? For students? That when they realize the importance? Have you ever noticed any kind of magical moments where they start to get, like why some of the stuff’s important?

Kristin: Oh, absolutely. I think I’m going to steal this story from a teacher who participated in the design challenge. I have my own stories that I’ve witnessed, but I’ve recently fallen in love with this story after hearing it just a few weeks ago. The tipping point, you know it’s different for each individual student. And we give them these opportunities and these programs, and we’re giving them these skills that they can then translate into various, various avenues.

And so there was a student who as described by the teacher, was not a high performing student in terms of grades on paper. And the student didn’t really seem to exude any leadership, or confidence, or critical thinking. Was kind of like, I’m going to say, C student, just for the purpose of this story, I don’t know for sure. But the student might’ve been like a C student or something like that.

Wasn’t really someone who the teacher thought, okay, this person I’d put them in this group with the higher achieving students. After attending our design day challenge, one of our design day challenges, the student then started to organize different things within the school. The student organized social activism and justice events. The student became involved in the theater department.

The student became involved and I believe it was like the math club. So different avenues. But not just involved, the student started leading the charge for all of those things. And so teaching other students how to make costumes, being like the person who started up the math club. And all of that, this teacher said stemmed from learning leadership qualities, and creative thinking, and teamwork, all of that from Design Challenge.

The teacher said that after Design Challenge, they noticed a complete difference in the student. And so we never truly know what the tipping point will be, but without that experience, this person would have never reached their potential. Or started to reach their potential. The teacher would not have seen what this particular student could have done. And where would that inspiration and creativity have come from if not from this activity.

And so, I mean, I love that story because I’m just like, you just truly never know how any of the students are going to then translate this. We have our traditional teaching, and our grading, and so forth and all of those benchmarks. But then when you think about how far the imagination can travel…I mean, this is just the example that I’m like, can I walk around the t-shirt with this on it?

Or like a 60 second video or something that just, that does like a cartoon that shows person A started here and then ended up here. It’s really exciting. So I think the tipping point is, it’s different, but I mean, it comes from this kind of work.

Douglas: Yeah. It’s amazing that the teacher saw the change in behavior afterwards, and it was so visible and recognizable. I think we see that sort of thing happening on teams as well. Whether they go through a workshop that’s transformative, they can see that there’s a different way to work. There’s a different way to think about how we come together, and make decisions, and do things.

And they go back and they’re never the same. Also I think, I’m curious to hear it too if do you see this with the students? But often in these types of scenarios, because people are able to color outside of the lines of their kind of official role, and they’re able to try new things and explore, capabilities, personalities, skills, strengths that no one knew about them start to surface.

In fact I had one manager tell me I had no idea that my team could do these things. And so it impacted her ability to lead the team, and to work with them and get more out of the team. And the team had more enthusiasm because they got to do new things and explore new stuff. So I’m kind of curious, how does that… I’m sure that comes up in your work as well.

Kristin: Oh, absolutely. I mean, just to continue on with that example, that teacher saying, I never saw the potential until this moment. I never saw it until after this happened. That’s one way I think for us, it comes through our program design. We are constantly making sure that we’re adjusting and adapting our programs, based on what the needs are, but then we also get inspired by what’s happening in real time in what students are yearning for.

And so that just translates. And I think that’s something that’s true of good leadership all around. That you see how your team, how the folks you’re working with, how they respond to certain things. And it’s like, okay, that’s their way in. We’re going to do more of that because that has created something that we could have never imagined.

Douglas: So shifting gears a little bit here, I want to just kind of come back to meetings specifically. And so love to hear some of your personal favorites ways to make meetings better.

Kristin: So I’m laughing because I’m sure many folks can relate as we continue on our virtual meetings. It’s like, okay, how do we get through these meetings? So I think virtually is the thing that’s coming to mind. How do I make a virtual meeting better? I love activities that build team spirit, or team bonding, that teach us different things about the individuals with whom we’re connecting. Very often, we get down and we sit down and we get right to business. And so those moments where we can just stop and say, let’s put an icebreaker here, or, let’s just have a check-in and see where everybody is. I love check-ins personally, because sometimes you need to put something in the space, so that you can move on. And it’s like, okay, let’s put that out there and we can move on from it. So I think those are fun, creative ways to really make meetings better. I also think that just when I lead meetings, I try to encourage some sort of cyclical leadership, so to speak. I think it’s great to pass the baton and say, I’ll facilitate some of this, but you have ideas, let’s hear from you, let’s have someone else step up to the plate. And so I think that’s a great way too.

Douglas: So I always like to say that questions are the facilitators swiss army knife. And having really great questions is such a powerful way to help a team move forward, to shift the way that they’re looking at the world. And I just interviewed Jan De Visch for the podcast and he has this really interesting model around what he calls, Thought Structures. And he said that most teams struggle because at any given time, anyone in the room or in the meeting, anybody in the team, or does everyone is operating in different thought structures.

There may be some overlap, but for the most part, people were probably in one mode versus the other. And so getting people to move, and think and shift those thought structures, I think he takes a very academic view on it, kind of detailing these thought structures. And there’s a lot of behavioral psychology and different elements baked into it.

But at the end of the day, I think the way that facilitators do this through practice, through self-discovery, even if they don’t label it as these different thought patterns, they are shifting thought patterns. And they are helping people realize the world from a new lens, and to take on different perspectives. And so I think questions can be so powerful. And especially when you’re working with students, I assume that you have lots of great provocative questions. So I’m curious, what are some of your favorites?

Kristin: Oh, my. Well the questions vary depending on what the project and the program are. I think one of the ways that we do that is, we’ve adapted the design thinking cycle. We’ve adapted that kind of national international model to fit what we’re doing. So we have what we call the STC design thinking process. So we try to ask various questions and in the cyclical, again, back to that cyclical form, seek understanding, test it out and continuously improve.

And so throughout that process, that’s where we’re really getting into the questions. I don’t know that there are specific questions that we are asking all the time. I think it really does vary. I mean, I can say from working from…say volunteering, because I am not someone who consistently works on the program side. So anytime I get to work with the students directly, I’m considered a volunteer.

And so from one of my own volunteering experiences, I would say there was a student who wanted to be working on the redesign of, I think it was a redesign of a very specific area in the city in New York, New Jersey. And they wanted to put in like this huge sports arena, but the space was so limited. And so I said, okay, so do you want to do like this sports arena? How do we do this while simultaneously creating an area that may be your grandmother might want to go sit in? Maybe she’s not into as much of the sports as you are, but she still needs to access this space.

So it’s really, I think the question then becomes, how do we do that, and? And I think it’s a yes, and, which I’m going to steal from improv. Yes, let’s do that. And what else? What else? So I think that’s probably the biggest question that I find myself asking.

Douglas: I love it. Yes. And it’s so powerful. We use that a ton in facilitation and rely on it all the time.

Kristin: Right.

Douglas: And so I guess that brings up an interesting point, which is you have a background in acting theater, I’m sure you have some experience with improv. I’m curious if you brought that into any of your meetings and how you’ve applied any of those skills?

Kristin: Oh, absolutely. I mean, all of the icebreakers are activities that I prepare for a meeting I take from my theatrical background. I think also just my approach to meetings is probably more from an artistic viewpoint than any other because I am someone who’s like, I do want to feel all the feelings, and I want to do all the things. So sometimes it’s like, no, we’re just going to do the thing. So it’s like, no, we have to feel the feelings and do the things. When we feel the feelings, it makes our work better.

So I approach any sort of meeting, whether it’s professionally or personally, I approach it from that viewpoint. I will even say, like talking with my family members on the phone, or on a Zoom call these days, I’m always like, we’re going to do something, it’s going to bring us all into the room together. Even though we’re not physically there, just ways to bring us closer. And so I steal all the time from acting exercises, and from improv games. Because they’re also great ways to make people feel safe.

And I think that’s also something that’s super important in any kind of meaning is that you have to be willing to take chances and risks because those are the things that lead to the great ideas. And you only are able to do that when you feel safe. And I would also say just kind of tying it back to Schools That Can, I mean, that’s one of the things that we feel passionate about too is that we’re giving students a safe place to make the mistake.

I don’t like to use the word fail, because failing isn’t it. It’ about making the mistakes, and learning from it. And saying, okay, I learned one way not to do it, or I learned what not to do the next time. And so I think for all of us, no matter how old we are, whether we are a K-12 education. Whether we’re in college, whether we are adults running companies and so forth, just creating that safe environment. And so artistically, I try to do that, but it’s so important for us to do that just in general.

Douglas: Yeah. It’s interesting. I find that folks from academia or K through 12 learning education, the word fail is, they’re a lot more sensitive to it. The startup folks they’re more playful with it and yeah, to your point, it’s like, sure, we don’t want to get to F. We don’t want to think about it as like totally flunking. But there has to be some learning had, we had to have an experimental mindset and know that there’s things that can be taken away from that. So I think that’s, that’s keen and important for sure.

Kristin: And I think it was Thomas Edison. I believe it was Thomas Edison who said, I found…I don’t know the exact number so this is not going to bode well for me, but- I found hundreds and thousands of ways not to do it before he finally figured out how so it’s what y’all have to do.

Douglas: Absolutely. I love to ask people about teams that struggle to maintain momentum after an ideation session. And how do they continue to build upon that energy that was created through this joyous and through this fun work? And make sure we maintain that even after we go back to the normal classroom or, and back to the everyday grind. I’m just kind of curious when you’re working with the students. Are there things that you found that kind of helped them stay the course? Or keep the momentum going?

Kristin: I think definitely community involvement. And by that, I mean, like the volunteers that we engage. Because the volunteers are all coming from different organizations, different corporations and so forth. I think having someone from another field, someone outside of education, and having this influence and ideally, or essentially, really this aspect of mentorship, I think that helps the students continuing to move on.

They get to see real life examples of things, of careers and jobs that they didn’t know existed. And so it sets a little fire inside, like, okay. But also it’s hearing from someone who isn’t their teacher. It’s sort of that thing where your mom or your dad can tell you, don’t do this thing because of X, Y, and Z. But then the neighbor next door says it and because they’re not your mom or dad, you really get it.

So I think it’s a little bit of that. I think those influences. And just not just that too, but also having different ways, and different approaches. One person’s approach may not sit with that particular student. And so here we have someone who works for a major financial institution, who is approaching it from a different angle and really working toward the same goals.

Douglas: Excellent. Well, I think that brings us to our completion here. It’s been really lovely chatting with you today. And hearing about the awesome work that you and Schools who Can are doing. And I guess, I just want to give you an opportunity to leave a message for our listeners. What would you like them to be thinking about, and considering right now?

Kristin: I think…that’s a tough one. There are so many things. I’ll try to boil it down. But I think maybe one of the biggest is that don’t underestimate our youth, our students. Don’t try to put them in small boxes and say, they can only do so much. Especially students who come from… We serve, as I mentioned, low income communities, marginalized communities.

Really say, if we give the students the opportunity to do this, what could they potentially do? And if we don’t limit them to our imagination, how far will they go? I think if we think like that, we’ll be able to really see the next generation create some pretty incredible scientific, medical, financial, artistic, architectural- we’ll be able to create some fantastic offerings to the world.

And we have to really think outside of our own boxes and say, I’m going to give them what they need. I’m not going to limit them to just what I think they can handle. Because they really can handle a lot more, and they will essentially be better off for it.

Douglas: Incredible. Thank you so much, Kristin. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, and I wish you the best of luck in all the work you’re doing. I think it’s really important. I’m excited to see that someone is shaping our future leaders.

Kristin: Yes. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on today.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.