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Errol St.Clair Smith

Errol St.Clair Smith

I'm the executive producer of BAM Radio Network, which means I get to eat, sleep and drink education talk radio. Over the last nine years, I've been a fly on the wall in over 3,500 discussions between some of the most thoughtful, passionate and fascinating educators in the nation. On these pages I share the most important lessons I've learned from them, along with an occasional rogue insight of my own. BACKGROUND: I am a 25-year veteran of the media. Over those two-and-a-half decades, I had the opportunity to author four books; write for The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times; and spent three years as a popular radio talk show host on KIEV in Los Angeles. I worked for seven years as an "on air" political commentator and co-hosted the Emmy Award-winning program Life and Times on PBS television. I eventually moved on to become a business reporter at KTLA in Hollywood. Owing to some great mentors, some good timing and perhaps a shortage of available talent, I managed to pick up five Emmy nominations and one Emmy Award along the way. Oh by the way, I went to Harvard. Well … actually, I was invited to speak there once, but I really learned a lot from the experience. :)

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My partner and I once went to counseling to resolve a conflict that was tearing our working relationship and friendship apart.   In the process, I learned that I have a serious problem with letting people know that I have heard and understood their point of view. I’ve been working on fixing that character flaw for 20 years, and producing education talk radio is the perfect therapy.

I’ve now spent a decade listening to educators speak about what matters most.  I’ve sat silently as teachers, principals, superintendents, professors, parents, and advocates voice their thoughts and opinions on myriad education topics from homework and teacher assessment to growth mindset, metacognition, innovation, creativity, risk-taking and leadership. Those voices have been thoughtful, articulate, passionate, compelling and committed to doing what’s in the best interest of kids. 

Personal blogs, a zillion Twitter chats, and a bazillion hashtags have amplified those voices and spread the ideas that educators value most around the world. Every week teachers now connect online and delight in their newfound power to get their discussions to trend on Twitter -- or better yet go viral.

It was unthinkable a decade ago, but we now live in a world where every educator’s voice can be heard.

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lockers 1

Jock sweat, sneaker funk and residual locker room “stank.” I can still remember that stuffy, putrid smell. And who can forget the bare bones facilities, dank showers, and unfiltered “boy talk” that made up the soundtrack at most high-school gyms?

Sometimes we talked about the game, sometimes we talked about each other, and sometimes we talked about the girls. Yes, sometimes the chatter was juvenile, lustful, and objectifying of women. It’s also true that this talk can still be heard in college locker rooms, frat houses, sports clubs, military bunkers, boardrooms, bars and any place where males get together beyond the earshot of females.

Crossing the Line

We have all been schlepping through months of repugnant sludge masquerading as a presidential election. For many, myself included, the tone of the campaign has been agonizing. Many of my friends in education tell me that they’ve stopped watching the spectacle altogether. “I simply can’t bear it," they say.

Many are tortured to see language and behavior that we find reprehensible rationalized and justified by some of the most respected thought leaders in our nation.

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“Wow!” Can you believe how much the education world has changed? There are parts of the education narrative that are so radically different today that you wonder whether someone changed the station in the middle of your favorite show. 

I was probably sitting too close to the speakers to hear just how much-empowered educators had changed the world. I only noticed the transformation after getting a text from Rae Pica reminding me of BAM Radio's nine-year anniversary. Zoom… my reflection engine fired up and the flashbacks started streaming in.  

In 2007, when the first educator-hosted radio show went live on BAM Radio, my daughter had not yet discovered her teenage angst, the notion of America’s first Black or female president was still a utopian dream, and we had no idea whether anybody (but our parents) would listen to an education radio show called BAM! 

Initially, our peers were indignant:

Peers: “Seriously…BAM Radio? Couldn’t you come up with something a little more education sounding than that? What the hell does BAM mean anyway?” 

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 #iloveThePoorlyEducated trended on Twitter this morning as the  twitterverse went into cardiac arrest over the latest comments from Donald Trump.

The giant sucking sound we’re all hearing is the escalating hyperventilation among people who again, can’t believe what “the Donald” is getting away with saying. Verbal missteps that would have doomed any past candidate for president, Congress or dog catcher have only accelerated Trump’s credibility.

In the ensuing hysteria, it’s easy to zero in on his  “I love the poorly educated” comment and overlook the deeper meaning of Trump's rise.  What did Trump really mean when he said, "I love the poorly educated?"


·      I think education is unimportant, and I love those who don’t value it.

·      Some people didn’t get the first-rate education my children received.  That’s too bad, but I love them anyway.

·      I love that some people are too poorly educated to see through me.

The hashtag #iloveThePoorlyEducated is overflowing with interpretations. There's little doubt that his comments will be the focus on nightly news and late night talk shows.

But before we jump on the knee-jerk bandwagon, it might be a good idea to pause and ponder. What lessons might be gleaned from Trump’s inexplicable support from people of all demographics?

Accuracy, Kindness, and Results

Most of us who work in the field of education agree that words matter. Indeed, we are word meisters. We meticulously choose our words to ensure that we precisely convey what we mean.  Further, we work to avoid saying anything that might be misconstrued or offensive to others. This commitment to accuracy and kindness has transformed the lexicon of our culture.  We've replaced words like retarded, disabled, deaf, blind, upperclassman, chairman, and principal with kinder, gender-neutral or less stigmatizing terms.

Those we once called  “poor kids” have become “kids in poverty” or “our free and reduced lunch population.”   “The Blacks” as Trump says, are now African-Americans and offensive school mascots have been fired or replaced with more acceptable substitutes.

But in our rush to be caring and precise, have we trampling obvious truths?

Candid Speech

In a BAM Radio interview about the old No Child Left Behind version of ESEA, a question was raised.  Is it realistic to have a policy that expects 100% of school kids to graduate? The guest acknowledged that the goal was obviously unrealistic. However, he noted that it would be politically unacceptable to publically express the obvious truth. Yes, some kids will most certainly be left behind.  In other words, it would be politically incorrect to speak the truth.

Political correctness has been hotly debated over the years, and I’ve lived on both sides of this issue.  That said, I suspect most people would agree that problem solving requires truth telling.  To manage real-life challenges, we need the ability to clearly, simply acknowledge and discuss the facts.  Perhaps James Baldwin said it best,

 “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

NCLB is a great example. In the NCLB scenario, NOT acknowledging that some kids WILL be left behind precludes discussions of what to do about those kids who are.  Perhaps this explains why I only recently discovered the entire universe of solutions created for kids who are not moving ahead academically.

The concept of “alternative schools” was not on my radar. I’ve never heard alternative schools mentioned in a State of the Union address, a DOE press conference or on BAM Radio.   Yet, their existence is a well-established, generally unspoken solution to the children who are indeed being left behind.

Our Radically Changing World

What has become apparent is that people of all kinds, at all levels are looking for answers to the unprecedented, tectonic shifts taking place in our world.

People are anxious, uncertain and afraid.

People in virtually every demographic are looking beyond the veneer of polite language, reality distorting labels and sacred cows in search of real answers.

The energy around Bernie Sanders and Trump's trouncing of thoughtful, polished, politically correct leaders may be sending a message to all leaders.

-- We may be entering an era in which leaders at all levels will need to master the skill of speaking in more straightforward ways to the concerns of the communities they lead.

-- We may be entering an era wherein the ability to actually solve problems trumps the ability to euphemize them.

-- We may indeed be witnessing history in the making -- the death of political correctness and the ascendancy of a more coarse, but authentic public discourse.

No one knows yet whether 2016 will be the year that tact, diplomacy and political correctness died.  What we do know is that a leader’s ability to speak more candidly, courageously and simply to community needs is more important now than ever.


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Our entire team has been distraught all day by news of the death of Deven Black.

When I received the call this morning that Deven had been savagely murdered, I was overcome by a panoply of visceral reactions.  First came horror, paralyzing grief and anger. Then disbelief that something like this could happen.  How could a passionate educator, connected to so many of us, become homeless, desolate and a target for street crime?

Deven was a pioneering connected educator whose accomplishments and contributions are beautifully honored by Lisa Nielsen here.

I felt a special connection to Deven because he was the first librarian we ever recognized at the Bammy Awards. Researching the category opened our eyes to the transformative work being done by Deven and a new breed of school librarians.  It also introduced us to Deven, the soft-spoken, gentle giant. We soon discovered the exceptional ways in which he was pioneering what it means to be a connected educator. This is partially what makes losing Deven so heartbreaking, and difficult to handle. 

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