An Educator’s Podcast Aims to Be an Antidote to School Culture Wars

EdSurge Podcast

An Educator’s Podcast Aims to Be an Antidote to School Culture Wars

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 5, 2024

An Educator’s Podcast Aims to Be an Antidote to School Culture Wars

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

Ken Futernick brings together people who disagree deeply on issues that are most dividing school communities these days — such as teaching about gender and sexual identity or about the history of racism in America.

And he records the conversations.

You might think the discussions would involve shouting matches or verbal fireworks. But Futernick — a longtime educator who has served as an elementary school teacher, a teacher educator and a leader of a national school turnaround center — aims to keep the dialogues as civil and productive as possible. To do that, he uses depolarization strategies, like “looping,” or having each person repeat back the other’s argument in their own words and ask whether they are hearing the other side accurately. The goal is to highlight areas of agreement rather than discord.

Futernick shares these recorded discussions on his podcast, “Courageous Conversations About Our Schools.

The dialogues unfold slowly, but many are riveting. Like one episode about supporting LGBTQ students. One guest was Willie Carver Jr., the 2022 teacher of the year in Kentucky who is gay and who quit the profession out of fear amid growing hostility toward LGBTQ educators and students at his school. The other guest was Dov Fischer, a law professor, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a political conservative who wrote an op-ed in 2022 speaking out against school policies that let students designate their gender identities.

Over the course of more than an hour of talking, “they started to realize that they really didn't disagree very much,” says Futernick. “Fischer said, ‘You know, really, I'm beginning to realize as a Jew growing up in New York, and I was sometimes teased and bullied for being Jewish, and I never felt fully American as an American, and what I'm hearing you say really is [that] as a gay man, you have felt as the other, and so much so that you had to quit your job.’ So by the end of the conversation, they each called each other a friend.”

We connected with Futernick for this week’s EdSurge Podcast, to hear what he’s learned from the more than 20 episodes of his podcast, and his advice for how to calm the often-overheated and toxic debates that have erupted at schools in recent years.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript, edited for clarity, below.

EdSurge: I understand your interest in this issue arose from work you were doing advising low-performing schools.

Ken Futernick: It's more the norm than not to have relationships between administrators and teachers, and even between teachers and teachers, become frayed and trust is lost.

Not only is there no collaboration, sometimes teachers just stop speaking to each other. And that is never good, and it ultimately causes some teachers to leave the profession.

Why aren’t they talking to each other?

Sometimes they can’t even remember.

Usually you can trace it back to an incident. Some issue came up where there was disagreement about some school policy, and people lined up on one side of an issue and another, and it never got resolved. And they weren't able to say, ‘Let's just agree to disagree.’ And so it just becomes a wedge issue.

Or there's an administrator that has some philosophical approach that some teachers agree with and others don't. And so they line up on one side or the other and remain divided.

So it sounds like you started this work because you felt like this was the issue that needed more attention — this challenge of talking with each other about issues?

Right. I became distressed about these so-called ‘culture wars’ erupting all over the place. Initially it was around critical race theory, and then it expanded to other concerns. The idea was that somehow teachers are talking with young children about things that they shouldn’t be. Often it didn’t go well. People will show up at school board meetings, line up, get their three minutes and accuse teachers of doing things that in many cases weren’t really true. But there's no other place that most school districts have created to have civil, productive conversations. So the podcast I created is a place to do that.

How would you describe how these culture wars have loomed larger at schools in recent years?

Of course for a long time there have been concerns about things like the books kids have access to. But because of social media, what's different these days is that there are now people who fall into the category of what Amanda Ripley calls ‘conflict entrepreneurs.’ These are people who promote conflict for conflict's sake because there's some political gain or financial gain in doing that.

And all you have to do is convince parents that teachers are doing something bad and raise a sense of fear. And if you haven’t been in school recently or aren’t a parent of some kind … you think, ‘that doesn't sound right.’ So you get your hackles raised up, and then there's not an easy way for people to find out if that's in fact true. So you hear it enough times, and you begin to believe it. And then many people are motivated to show up and say, ‘I don't want that, and I'm going to vote for laws that prevent that.’

But never is there an actual, honest conversation with educators to say, ‘Gee! I've heard this. Is it true you're indoctrinating?’

And I think teachers would say ‘I really would invite you to come into my classroom and watch.’ That is usually how these things get resolved, is if there's stronger relationships between parents and educators, through courageous conversations and a little bit of empathy and a sense of curiosity, rather than coming into those conversations with suspicion and a sense of contempt for these so-called left-wing educators.

For schools and teachers and school leaders, is there something you found that can change the tone once debates get toxic?

I mentioned earlier that I had worked with some of the lowest-performing schools in the country. And what we found is in those schools, the people had sort of become polarized. They were on one side or another. People just stopped talking to show there's very little trust. And so before we can start focusing on teaching and learning and curriculum to turn these schools around and have to try to see better outcomes for their students, we had to try to repair the relationships among the people at the school.

So there's an elementary school in Stockton, California. And when we asked in a survey of all the teachers at one particular elementary school how much they felt there was trust among staff and administration, among all the people of the school, it was very low. We asked how much did they enjoy coming to work? Not many people enjoyed it.

So we got everyone to agree to come together voluntarily to an after-school meeting and said, ‘What if we were able to sort of define a different future for all of us, and not go back and try to change the past, because that's impossible? But if we could list the kind of values we'd like to live by as a school community.’

And they listed, you know, integrity, honesty, trust; things like that. And I said, ‘What does that actually look like in terms of what you will do and what you won't do?’ And they say, you know, when we walk past each other, we had to always acknowledge each other. Say hello, wave, and not ignore each other. This is a simple little thing, but they came up with a list.

And virtually everyone says, ‘I'm willing to commit to it.’ And then, you know, a month later, we come back.

And I can guarantee you it's gonna go off the rails, or it's gonna seem like it did at one point or another, [so] that we need to come back and talk about, how do you have a conversation when that happens?

We did this for several months, and we conducted that survey about how much trust they felt a year later, 90 percent of people said ‘I enjoy coming to work.’ And the really cool thing was that of the 50 schools in Stockton Unified, academically. And we hadn't even begun focusing on teaching and learning, it was just repairing relationships.

Listen to the full conversation on the EdSurge Podcast.

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