The sixth episode of “When Everyone Leads: The Podcast” explores how people can lead in education regardless of their job titles.
How do we navigate the politicized nature of education today? And what does it look like to work across factions or choose among competing values with student success in mind?
Guest speaker Dr. Randy Watson brought the topic for discussion. Watson has served as the Kansas Commissioner of Education since November 2014. His career in education has taken him from teacher to superintendent. During his tenure with the Kansas State Department of Education, he has become known for his passion to position Kansas as an innovator in rethinking a century-old school model.
In its first season as the Kansas Leadership Center’s podcast, “When Everyone Leads” asks guests to bring a challenge to the center, which the hosts and guest then discuss and analyze through a leadership framework.
It is hosted by KLC co-workers Brianna Griffin, the show’s lead producer, and Chris Green, executive editor of The Journal. KLC’s Maren Berblinger, Julian Montes and Neha Batawala also produce the show.
The podcast is inspired by the book “When Everyone Leads” by Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, the Kansas Leadership Center’s main funder, and KLC’s immediate past president and CEO; and Julia Fabris McBride, KLC’s chief leadership development officer.
The following is a transcript of the conversation among Green, Griffin and Watson, edited for length and clarity, followed by a discussion among Green, Griffin, Berblinger and Montes.
Watson: I’d like to talk about education and education policy nationally, regionally and statewide around K-12 education.
Green: Tell us about your connection to this topic and why it’s important to you. You have decades in the field. Why are you so passionate about this? You’ve worked hard for years to really get the state to think about education and opportunities for the future. What’s driving you? What makes this an important topic to talk about right now?
Watson: I was really lucky. I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be a history teacher and I wanted to coach basketball, and that’s what I did. As I started to teach and work with young people, I thought maybe I could have a little bit bigger sphere of influence, so I did what many people in education do—I became a principal and then assistant superintendent. This was never part of the plan, to be commissioner.
But at the heart and soul of what drives me is that we’re trying to impact students and their families and better the trajectory of their life. I tell young people all the time, especially high school students where you have these types of conversations, I tell them, ‘You know, for the first 16 years of your life, somebody else wrote your life story for you. You were along for the ride, and you had some input, especially as you get older, but it’s been pretty well written for you. And now the rest of your life gets to be written by you.’
And so, getting them to think about: How do we own that, and how can we do that, and how can we plan for that, and how can we make sure they’re prepared to do what they really dream of doing and want to do? So, I think that’s what drives me every day. Even though I come to work as the commissioner of education, I really am a student person at heart and a school person at heart.
Green: When you think about education, what concerns you the most?
Watson: I’d say in 2023—I wouldn’t have said this five years ago—it’s the politics of it. We have become very divisive over the general topic of education and a lot of sub-topics within that, both at a national and a state level and even somewhat at a local level that I never saw in most of my lifetime until probably COVID. And it continues after that.
So, I think how we politicized what for many, many years was a non-political entity called K-12 education.
Green: If we this got this moment right and got past this to a dream version of the future for being less divisive, what would that look like to you? What would be the kinds of things that would be happening that aren’t happening as much now?
Watson: I think it comes back to a few things. Conversation around people about, what do we really want? Not slogans. Not things we have read about. I read sometimes about education, and I have to stop and go, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I need to go a little bit deeper to understand what is the issue that someone’s maybe upset about.
So, I think a conversation with a building of trust, that I can trust you that I’m not going to be harmed by that conversation. But we can come to a resolution together that will make sense for possibly students or grandkids or whoever we’re working on. And I think that’s what’s lacking.
We’re jumping to quick conclusions based upon limited information that we’re getting from—and I say biased sources because as you both know and we all know really well, any of our social media is biased because we only see who we’re friends with and targeted by how we do a click in Google. So, you know, Chris, what you and I see on Twitter, what you and I see on Facebook, is not the same. We all have a biased view we come to.
And I think we’re coming to those conclusions too quickly without having what I call good, honest, wholesome conversation with our community members around what’s important.
Griffin: I want to say the majority of the people we’ve interviewed have had that same premise that things have been more polarized. Social media has had an aspect in that because of what you can see and what you can’t see. One thing I’ve seen on social media, because my mom is a teacher, so I know the back end of it; I know what she is required to teach and how she’s required to teach it. So, whenever I hear things like, ‘Oh, they’re putting their own politics into the education,’ in my mind that’s ridiculous. They have certain things they’re required to teach that they have to do. They have certain books they’re required to teach from, especially elementary school. So, I wonder, in the age of social media, how can we combat that?
Watson: Let’s have that conversation. That’s what the Kansas Leadership Center—I think that’s what we’re all about. How do we figure that out together? Because we’re going to have to do it. Social media, the smartphone, is such a wonderful device. It does such wonderful things. But there’s such a downside to it. I’ve never been in your mother’s classroom, but I can tell you on any given day she’s teaching app, app, app—apple. She’s teaching phonics. She’s teaching, ‘You know, it’s probably not good that you hit each other.’ I think you’re trying to teach some proper skills. That is what happens in kindergarten as we start to develop.
But I think if we all say we always have wondered what’s best for young people, and where are we not accomplishing that? And then can we have a conversation about that before we both arrive at preconceived ideas? How we get there—I think it’s difficult. I don’t know the mechanism to do the community forums anymore where people just don’t shout at each other. I think we can continue to try to spread that message. And hopefully as more and more people come to understand the limitations of our technology and social media, they’ll understand that maybe a return to some of those concepts we had in the past are good while we take, ‘I can Google this on my phone really quick, and I can get a map; I don’t have to do a Rand McNally to tell me where I’m going.’ And there’s all kinds of great things. So, I’m hopeful, but I just don’t know the exact vehicle that we’re going to get there.
Green: I almost think every single community meeting needs a designated shouting booth so people can go shout into the booth before the meeting starts and get all of that out of their system and express themselves and then come for the discussion. It feels like a lot of people don’t feel like they’re being heard or valued. And any occasion that allows them to express that value, it’s hard to resist. And they just want to be heard about something they feel people aren’t hearing them on. And your role—you’re trying to answer what’s best for this whole system that’s trying to educate children. Do you feel a tension in there?
Watson: Yes. I think when you’re not talking about a common sense of values. I know in my era, if you got in trouble in school, and I did sometimes, I was petrified to go home. And I wanted to go home and tell at least, ‘Hey, I need to tell you this story before the school called.’ Because the punishment at home was going to be so much worse. It wasn’t going to be, ‘I’m going down to that school and straighten them out.’ It was, ‘I’m going to straighten you out.’
Because that school had to be doing what was right. I’m not sure we always agree on that today. Again, that comes back to the trust. I watch young people with a cell phone that can be in the same room with each other not having a conversation; they’re all texting. So, there’s an isolation factor that happens with social media, too, and you couple isolation and COVID and we’re talking about things that come together. I think those things certainly had an effect on us.
Griffin: You’ve already mentioned a few different factions. You mentioned parents, educators, the kids. Are there any other factions that are involved in this issue?
Watson: Sure. Political parties in gaining office. I think you see that play out more on a national and then a policy scale. And then that plays in how things react locally. So, I think all those play a role.
Green: One faction you’ve tried to engage during your tours of the state has been the business community, which has been influential. I’m curious about how well we’re doing at engaging that voice right now. And are there other, new voices that would help to have in the conversation? Who’s not as engaged as they could be right now but it would help if they were more engaged?
Watson: The business community has been outstanding. Starting with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the local chambers, the local business leaders, from large corporations like Spirit or Cargill to mom-and-pop shops that have five employees. They’ve been great. And they’ve told us, ‘We have a lot of young people, whether they graduate from college or just high school, that have this skill set that they don’t have around employability skills, soft skills.’ And so, we’ve been talking a lot about that.
I think for us today, if we’re looking at who we are engaging, we have to think about how we’re going to engage a conversation with parents again and community who do not have kids in school. Those two. I think we’re doing pretty well with our business community right now, honestly.
Green: What makes it hard to reach those people? What would it look like if they did get engaged?
Watson: My home is still McPherson, Kansas, where I was superintendent for a number of years. We still live there, and our kids live there; it’s really great. You take a town the size of McPherson, which in Kansas is a mid-sized town but it’s small. And the history of those communities would be that most people would be in a Lions Club or Kiwanis, and they’re doing the blood drive, and by the way, we all go to church, maybe different denominations. We had all these factors where there was a lot of social interaction. Even neighbors would get together and do things. And now, service clubs are diminishing. No one’s joining those. Participation in church activities has diminished. Neighbors don’t get together nearly as much. Some people don’t even know their neighbors. I’m talking about small towns; I’m not talking about urban ones.
And so, I think that has changed dramatically. Our opportunities to interact with each other when there’s not a specific event that’s occurring is not as great as it was even 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30 years ago. We’re all busy. People are working, moving kids to soccer practice to piano. And then if your kids are young maybe I’ve got adult parents I have to go take care of also because they’re not in good health. We’re extremely busy. But this ability to interact with other people maybe outside of our immediate family or a very small group of friends I think is not as great as it has been in past years.
Green: Assuming that things are getting better, what would you like to see happen in the next five to 10 years in education in Kansas? What sort of conversations would we start having that are harder to have now because of the division that we might start having and might help us make progress?
Watson: We have a fast-changing economy. ChatGPT just blows me away. I just was reading about version 4. It’ll do everything. You can put in a drawing and it creates like a webpage. This is going so fast and changing so fast. So, education is going to have to be different to produce students who are going to be in a different environment. Business tells us that all the time.
There’s a nostalgia around schools that we all have. Garfield Elementary in Coffeyville, Kansas, where I went to school. It’s no longer a school; it’s a church. But there’s something reassuring when I’m back home just driving by it and seeing it and allowing me to reminisce. These schools are products of us growing up in our youth. And growing up and having our youth is for most people this important time that we resonate an experience with. So, there’s this pull to take us back to a simpler time.
And there’s a pull from business to say, ‘But we need a different work environment, and we need a different student.’ Even in Wichita, our largest school district, there’s still neighborhood schools, especially elementary, that would serve a broad neighborhood, or a magnet that would serve a limited number of students. Let’s bring families—and many of those are businesspeople—and then just have a conversation so we all get on the same page. I think that would even be as beneficial as parent-teacher conferences.
The challenge is that we’re so busy. We’re so busy leading our lives. Most of us are working one or two jobs, and if we do have a two-member household with kids, usually both are working, and that wasn’t always true, where someone was at home. So, if you could ask parents, whoever you are, parents, and if you have grandparents, an extended family, bring them. We’re going to have a conversation. Invite the business leaders. We’re just going to have a conversation about what we’re trying to teach. Here’s what we need to have support at home for. Here’s what the business community needs. And by the way, if you’re a first-grader, by the time you get to be a ninth-grader, that’s likely to change dramatically, because Brianna, I don’t remember ChatGPT being on the horizon in my world five years ago. It’s just exploded.
Griffin: Yeah. It’s really interesting that you say that, because it makes me think about the difference that my nephew’s education is compared to how mine was compared to how my mom’s was. My mom did not have calculators. She thought it was cheating when calculators came out, the graphing calculators and all of that. And I had the graphing calculators. Well, now ChatGPT is out, and my nephew’s telling me it’ll create a whole essay, no plagiarism. I was like, that’s cheating! So, now I’m in the same position my mom was in when it comes to the growing technology. And then my nephew’s taking coding classes in the same middle school I went to that had no coding classes back then. So, it’s really interesting the direction our education system is going. And how are we going to combat how easy it is to cheat at this point?
Watson: We come back to: What do we need to happen? And it’s conversation. It’s engagement of the conversation. Let’s feed everyone hot dogs and ice cream. That’ll get people out a little bit more. And let’s have just a conversation: This is what we teach. This is what it looks like. This is why. This is what we see today. This is what we’re going to see in the future. And then we can talk about things like ChatGPT, books in the library. We can honestly talk about these things in an environment where we also get to know each other. And I think that would be so important.
Green: And it seems to me, though, one of the interesting dynamics is we have all this technology which in theory saves us time, which creates time, which allows us to do more things. We don’t have fewer hours in a day than the people in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s had, but if we’re not making time for conversations, is that really a question of time? Or is it a question of values? That we are valuing those conversations, or we aren’t putting enough value in things that don’t have an immediate impact. I think there’s an interesting question of what we value. And if we’re not having the conversations we need to have, how would we have to reorganize our values to make them more possible to happen more often?
Watson: I think that’s a good point that’s worth exploring, Chris. I don’t know whether it’s a priority, a value. Certainly, technology does save us time, but we fill that time with other things. Maybe it is a value or a priority. Again, let’s have a conversation about that. Because, at the end of the day, what is important? When I go back to my grandmother—I started with her. My grandparents were conservative, but they said to us, ‘You’re going to vote Democratic.’ ‘What?’ ‘Franklin Roosevelt got us out of the Depression.’
And I want you to think about this: My parents lived in a depression. My grandparents had no job. They left Kansas to go work for a job. So, my grandmother and grandfather said to me, ‘Always value a job. Show up early. Work late. Be happy that you have a job. Give to people who don’t have what you have—your neighbors, your church people—and when your country needs you, whether to ration or go, you go. You go serve your country. That was really valuable. That’s not a Democratic or Republican value. But it was Franklin Roosevelt that they admired for getting them out of the Depression, because they didn’t have any work. They didn’t have any way to support their family.
Griffin: Where do you see our opportunities lying for education?
Watson: I think our brightest days can still be ahead of us as we think about these opportunities. Young people still want to do something really remarkable. They still have dreams and aspirations. And I think we can help them get there. So, I’m optimistic even though we have challenges ahead of us, and I think the challenges are just going to make us really have to think about how we will solve these issues we have. I am optimistic that our best days are still ahead of us in education. As Chris said: What do we really value? What’s really important to us? And let’s start with that conversation and then work backward.
Green: Hearing you talk about these issues, it strikes me that in our society we put a lot on the shoulders of education. So many societal changes and so many challenges. I don’t think that lets you off the hook for anything, but I do wonder: Do we put too much on education? And do we have more work in the rest of society to think of ourselves as partners with education and not putting so much on the shoulders of educators?
Watson: It has to be a partnership. It starts with parents. They’re the first educators. They’re the most important. Yes, it’s the student. But if you look at who wraps around that, it’s family—whatever that family looks like for that student. Educators, the teachers and the school, and then the business community layers around that. We all have to be in sync going down the same road together to get to the desired outcome. And as we started this whole conversation, right now we may not always be in sync with each other.
Green: What do you hope people listening to this podcast get out of it? If they wanted to do something or take an action in response to it, what do you hope they do?
Watson: First, I want them to have a sense of hope. Our better days are ahead of us. Second, get involved in your local school. If you’re a parent, volunteer if you can, even if it’s a day a month. And at our agency, we allow you to volunteer. You want to go substitute teach one day a month? Go substitute teach. Ask your employer: Do you give any time off? And if so, can I go be in the school and volunteer? Get to know your teacher. Become heavily involved in that. If you don’t have kids in school, get to know the kids that are in school. And again, volunteer. If you like the thing about substitute teaching or teaching, we’d love to have you in the profession. But overall, have the hope and become engaged in school and your community. We need all of us. The Kansas Leadership model is we can lead from anywhere. And we’re asking people to do that, including in education, every single day.
Discussion among the hosts and producers after the main conversation:
Berblinger: What struck me in connection to the book is a way we can hide or minimize value complex is often time and money. And that’s just a natural human thing to do. It’s an easier thing to blame time and money than actually digging into what’s the root of the problem here. Where are we placing our resources? And maybe we aren’t being as intentional as we could be about that.
Montes: I thought, Chris, one of your last questions was extremely provocative: Are we putting too much on the backs of the education system? One thing I remember seeing in particular at the start of COVID is, ‘Oh, the schools fed our kids. And now they’re home all the time. There might not be enough food for the kids.’ And then there was the broadband issue and all these other things on top of it. But, in itself, is the education system a safety net? I wish we could wrestle with it more at some point. How dependent are we on this system that’s underfunded and under-resourced and gets a lot of heat for things outside their own control?
Griffin: I can understand why the education system is more polarized now than it was before, because now I think parents are like, ‘OK, before, we were letting teachers do a whole bunch. And now I’ve had a year of experiencing some of what I think teachers experience.’ In my opinion, some of them think they are now the experts in that field, because they’ve taught their kids for a year, and now they know what the teachers go through. When in reality, you had your kid in your home for a year; the teachers have all of that times 20 in their classroom every single day. So, imagine what the teachers are going through. And that’s not where people went. Where people went was, ‘Well, now I’m an expert in this, too, and now I can tell you what to do more than what I used to tell you what to do,’ is what I think.
Green: Yeah, it has me thinking we are too quick to judge ourselves as experts at something by doing something for a little bit of time. And I think it brings us back to this question of diagnosis. When we find something that makes us mad, our first reaction is what Randy said—fire off an email and say you’re doing this wrong. And I wonder if a default behavior more of us should adopt is when we get mad, instead of firing off the email, if we’re going to write, ask a question. Ask people, ‘This really upsets me. What led you to do this? What is your intention?’
One of the things we talk about in the book is everybody can ask powerful questions. Well, what if we made that the first thing we do? When we have an emotional reaction to something, ask a question.
Berblinger: And I wonder how far that would go, just asking a question rather than a loaded statement with educators. Would they be more willing to stay in the game like Randy said?
Green: Yeah, and I think it can make people feel seen. I’m thinking about how we live in the age of algorithms. We have these finely tuned codes that predict what we want to see on social media. We have all these records about ourselves that exist that didn’t exist in generations of the past. If you meet me somewhere, how are you going to find out about who I am? You might ask me questions, but probably more likely than not you’re going to Google me or go look at my LinkedIn or go check out my Facebook. So, you’re going to go build this roadmap of who you think I am based on the things you see. You’re going to get a sense of, ‘Oh, he’s a journalist. This says this about him. He went to this school or he lives here.’ And so, you’ll have this story about me without ever even talking to me or knowing my story. Being able to set that to the side and realize there’s something there that’s true, but it’s not the full truth. Just because you can Google it doesn’t mean it’s true, the whole truth.
Montes: I’ve actually been given the advice multiple times: Post minimally. Especially since we’re out in the community so often now, I don’t want anyone to know anything about me. I want people to guess, not to be able to say for certain, ‘Oh, this person is a really progressive person. Oh, maybe this person is actually a conservative; he’s talking about second amendment stuff now.’ I have an allegiance to what’s for the common good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I have it for, ‘What team do I play for?’ Because I think that hat switches all the time. I think that makes it really hard to partner with somebody like me who doesn’t put that out.
Griffin: I want to say that social media and the algorithms behind it are not the enemy. Back then, you used to be able to just see the most up-to-date things of all of your friends. Now the algorithms have changed for you to see more polarizing things or things you actually believe in. So, if you ‘like’ more things that are about certain things or if you ‘like’ more posts from a certain person, then you’ll see those people more and you’ll also see the subjects you’ve ‘liked’ more. So, that’s the way our algorithm is set now, which is why out of my thousand-plus ‘friends,’ I only see 10 or 15 of them ever on my feed. The way it’s set up on the back end, the algorithm, is what’s keeping us polarized.
Montes: I feel like we need an episode of When Everyone Leads on social media. (Berblinger and Griffin agree.)
Griffin: Getting back to education.
Berblinger: I’m struck by the power of the stories and the narrative we tell about things. We all have pity or say being a teacher is so rough. But we don’t really stop to talk about the impact or the importance of the profession as much.
Green: It also occurs to me that this one discussion has had a really wide spectrum of things we’ve talked about. And it feels really hard to talk about education without touching lots of different elements in society. It’s like education is this focal point we put a lot of stuff into. We use it to talk about the changes in society. It’s pretty fundamental, as Julian identified, to how society is organized and functioning. So, we may just need to figure out how to think about that as we talk about education And also look for ways to be engaged that aren’t those points when we’re most directly impacted or mad. If education is so important to society, then why aren’t more of us contributing to the conversation? If we isolate it to just being about schools and teachers and what’s going on in the classroom, it can leave a lot of us out. And we may need to just change our framing and think about it as a broader issue.