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How Educators Changed the World One Voice at a Time

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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?” 

Us: “It’s an acronym for Body And Mind, representing the whole-child focus of Rae’s show.”

Peers: “But no one will know what that means.”

Us:  "You're right, but Google had the same problem and look at what happened to them.

Fast-forward 4,000 episodes and “who’d have thunk it?”  Like Columbus, we set out to amplify the voice of one educator and we ended up discovering the soundtrack of the entire education nation. (Yup! More proof that five-year plans may be highly overrated.)

The Five Stages of Educator Voice

BAM Radio Network is a long-playing record of what educators have been talking about (and not talking about) since 2007.  If you play the recording backward and listen with your eyelids shut tightly, you'll hear two amazing things. The first is how much has changed in the education community in the last nine years. The second is the dramatic evolution in the tone and nature of what teachers, administrators and educators of all stripes are saying now that they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say before. 

As I hit replay and listened to what educators have been discussing over the last decade, I counted five stages in the evolution of educator voice. 

Educator Voice 1.0: “If I Only Had a Voice” 

Like a character in the Wizard of Oz, educators were saying life would be better for me, for the profession, and for kids "if I only had a voice.”  Ironically, many of the educators we initially approached weren’t sure what to make of the idea of hosting a radio show and having a global voice, anytime, anywhere. Yes, many longed to have their voice heard, but most seemed to view hosting a radio show like they viewed a blog: “Sure, I could do a radio show but who would listen to me?”

The national associations were the first to “get it” and jump on the wavelength -- perhaps because they knew they had pre-established audiences. First, NAEYC started a show and then PTA. Soon AASA, NAESP, NASN, ASBO, NASSP, NHSA, and  SECA would follow, and…BOOM! (I mean, BAM!), BAM Radio Network was born.

Today, virtually every major education organization, including the Education Writers Association and ASCD, has a radio show. Initially, a show on BAM Radio was just viewed as an audio newsletter or a soapbox, but connected educators would soon change all of that.

Educator Voice 2.0: “10-Minute PD”

Tom Whitby’s EdChat Radio was the first show on BAM Radio hosted by what we affectionately called “the Twitterati.” The show was created for connected educators who were all about using social media to learn and support each other. Tom Whitby, Nancy Blair, Jerry Blumengarten, William Chamberlain and Mark Weston helped set the standard for using BAM Radio as a PD tool.  Prior to EdChat Radio, BAM Radio was more like traditional talk radio, jumping from hot issue to hot issue with no commitment beyond amplifying all credible voices and supporting “civil discussion.” But EdChat Radio refined our thinking about the best use of the network and soon we were hosting Edcamp Radio, Satchat Radio, Edtechchat Radio, and PTchat Radio. Eventually, educators like Vicki Davis would model what is possible at the outer limits of on-demand PD with Every Classroom Matters. Her peer, Jon Bergmann, would demonstrate how one educator's voice can impact education all around the globe.

Educator Voice 3.0 

The launch of BrandED with Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo started a change in the tone of educators’ voices on BAM Radio. Prior to Joe and Tony, most shows were locked within a fairly narrow band of “professional discourse.” Guests put on their “super-professional educator voice” when the “on-air” light went red and returned to being mere mortals when the sign went dark. Joe and Tony changed the game and helped to unleash educator voice in powerful new ways. They started by asserting that proudly talking about the great things happening in our schools was a good thing. In fact, they insisted that it was a mandate of 21st-century education leadership. They challenged the idea that publically talking about your school’s good work was bragging, as many believed.

In addition to challenging the “no-brag” convention, Joe wielded a boisterous on-air style that was offensive to some who thought an NPR format was the gold standard of how a substantive education radio show should sound. BrandED and its charismatic hosts took a lot of heat from those who felt the show was  counter to the understated, self-effacing culture of professional educators. Many hated the use of the term “brand” associated with education. They hated the notion of educators trumpeting their successes, and they hated that Joe and Tony were encouraging others to do the same. During Educator Voice 3.0, we swallowed many blistering blog posts about the show, but people continued listening and increasingly we saw more and more educators sharing their own positive stories about the great things happening in their classrooms, schools, and PLNs. 

Soon we noticed that a new generation of educators was taking “telling your own story” to a whole new level. Many were part of the selfie generation – those who are quite comfortable using social media to focus on themselves, their passions and their work. This group began to redefine educator voice in ways that made the old guard very queasy.  You can hear the dissonance about it on the episode we did with Eric Sheninger, Tom Whitby, Joe Mazza, Joe Sanfelippo, Tony Sinanis and Rae Pica, titled:

Educators' Changing Views on Humility, Humble Bragging, and Sharing Successes Through Social Media

Clearly, the new vanguard has prevailed. Perhaps the biggest sign of how different this generation is from earlier connected educators is their use of quotes. Years ago, when educators used a quote to make a point, it was typically from people like John Dewey, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Today, educators are quoting themselves with the same vigor with which they once cited the greatest minds of all time. Yes, educator voice has definitely changed. Smile…

Educator Voice 4.0

One of the distinctive qualities about the first three stages was the tendency to be agreeable at all costs. Part of the education/social media culture is about supporting other educators, and hosts and guests on BAM Radio went above and beyond to show support. If you listen to any of the shows on BAM Radio pre-2016, some of the most repeated phrases you’ll hear are:

“I completely agree with you.”

“I agree with everything your guest just said.”

“I agree 100%.”

“I agree 1000%.”

Even when we’d invite guests who had written posts with rabidly opposing views, we found the guests focusing on what they agreed on and avoiding areas of divergent opinions once on air.

Hmmm. How can we encourage the expression of more diverse views? Let’s do a show called Taboo, where educators can find a safe place to talk openly about issues we typically avoid. So we did. But the community wasn’t ready for that and the panel of hosts routinely expressed their concerns about publically discussing sensitive issues. The prevailing feeling was, “We need to support each other, not debate each other.”

Fast-forward a couple of years and in walks Rosa Perez-Isiah, a soft-spoken, veteran administrator with a keen intellect, a compassionate heart and the courage of a street fighter. With one question she raised the bar and changed the tone of educator voice on BAM Radio for good. Rosa said:

Screen Shot 2016 07 01 at 8.14.49 PM

With one tweet, and a subsequent phone call, Rosa challenged us to look at the BAM Radio learning community, acknowledge our deficits and seek out courageous voices -- voices committed to talking openly about difficult subjects, taking on sacred cows and speaking truth to power and to peers. Rosa ushered in a new generation of brave voices on BAM Radio. Voices like Brad Gustafson and Ben Gilpin, hosts of UnearthEd, who are committed to engaging in deeper more meaningful discussions. Voices like Jon Harper, host of My Bad, where prominent educators openly share big mistakes they’ve made and what they learned from them. Voices like Neil Gupta, Sean Thom and Oskar Cymerman whose voices reverberate with unvarnished straight talk on EDWords, BAM Radio Network’s blog. And of course Rosa Perez-Isiah of WeLeadEd Radio, who has discussed some topics so high on the courage scale that only your dog can hear her.

The Edvoice 4.0 stage is marked by more divergent voices and invaluable modeling on how to talk about things on which we might disagree.

The Golden Age of Educator Voice

We may now be in the golden age of educator voice. Educators have moved from blogging to self-publishing books, and starting publishing companies. Teachers have gone from recording video for their classes to live streaming their classrooms to the entire world.  Educators have changed the process of professional development, redefined the boundaries of the classroom, flipped the process of pedagogy, shifted the arc of education policy, and are currently driving a worldwide discussion on rethinking the meaning and purpose of school. Many everyday educators have become highly regarded thought leaders and their voices are impacting education all across the globe.  Much of this was unthinkable nine years ago. 

Today, there is now a growing cadre of educators who aren’t asking for a voice; but are asserting their voices in new and dynamic ways. Yes, occasionally blinded by new-found influence, some go over-the-top with a “how-ya-like-me-now” swagger.  However, most are simply saying, “I’ve found my voice and I intend to you use it.”

The Road Ahead

The education space is filled with organizations that were started for a good reason but have outlived their relevance and usefulness. So on our ninth-year anniversary, it seemed like a perfect time to do a gut check. Does BAM Radio still serve a purpose?  What is the rationale for continuing our mission of amplifying voices? Is there work still to be done here? The answer is in the numbers.

Unprecedented Times 

A couple years ago I started noticing the word “unprecedented” showing up with greater frequency.  To determine whether this observation was just perception or reality, I decided to Google the word.  Sure enough, over the last 10 years, the use of the word has been rising dramatically.

Screen Shot 2016 07 01 at 8.22.39 PM

Everywhere we turn we are seeing changes of a scope and magnitude unlike anything we‘ve ever seen before, and education is no exception. The adoption of Common Core Standards was “unprecedented.” The amount of venture-capital-backed technology flowing into education is “unprecedented.” The shift from teacher-centric to student-centric pedagogy is “unprecedented.”  The shift to teaching students “how to learn” versus “what to learn,” as Tom Whitby noted, is also “unprecedented.”

Perhaps A.J. Juliani best summarized how radically unprecedented these times in education are when he wrote:

Screen Shot 2016 07 01 at 8.09.04 PM

His comment remains the second most popular quote for the year on QuotED, underscoring how powerfully this notion resonates.

But to find our path forward we return again to Rosa Perez-Isiah. 

It’s becoming increasingly clear to most of us that what got us here won’t get us there.  These unprecedented times require unprecedented action, and unprecedented action requires unprecedented courage.

From Lincoln to Margret Thatcher, Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr., history has repeatedly shown that voices of courage can spark exceptionally courageous action in groups, organizations, and entire nations. 

Defining Courageous

One of my favorite movies based on a true story is Tucker. It’s about an innovative thinker with a dream to build a safer car. Preston Tucker pioneered some of the automobile safety features we all take for granted today. In one ironic scene from the flick, Tucker is introduced to a “professional administrator” being brought in by the board to run his car company. During the introduction, the executive notes that he’s an “innovator” just like Preston, and points out that putting plastic seat covers in cars was his idea. The fact that all innovation is not created equal is vividly obvious to the audience and everyone in the scene except this senior executive.

Today, we hear a lot of talk today about innovation, innovators’ mindsets and certified innovators. I’ll go out on a limb and submit that these unprecedented times demand that we not confuse creative or novel ideas with the quality of innovative thinking, expression, and action that is required to adapt to these unprecedented times.

In a fascinating book titled Originals:How Non-Conformists Move the World, the author makes the point that all change is driven by courageous, unreasonable people who are willing to go against the grain, raise their voices and act on unpopular ideas. He points out that where the status quo is unacceptable, decades of research shows that there are only four options:

1.  Speak up 

2.  Get out

3.  Persevere

4.  Neglect

He notes that only speaking up or leaving makes a difference. 

Speaking up in the face of losing Facebook likes or social media followers is one thing. But speaking up in the face of intense public criticism, the threat of losing your job, your career or your home takes exceptional courage. This is a different quality and level of courage than it takes to put seat covers in cars.

This level of courage is rare in every profession, but it exists.  When we hear the voices of those who have this sort of courage we are magically inspired. Their voices embolden us and make us more courageous too. Their voices have the power to transform us from huddling sheep into lions and lionesses ready to do whatever we’ve been put on this  planet to do. I’ve found that to acquire this level of courage we must be exposed to it -- more accurately, exposed to people who are “living it.” Yes, you can hear the difference between those who are “living courageously” and those who just read and write about it. 

So where are the most courageous voices in education? I don’t know, but BAM Radio’s mission going forward is to hunt them down, beg them to pick up a microphone and do our best to amplify their voices. 

Bravo to all of you who have shared your voices with all of us over the last nine years. You have made a difference, made an impact and changed the world.

We look forward to continuing to hear and share your ideas on BAM Radio Network for another nine plus. Of course, we have no idea what the next nine years will bring, but if the past is a reliable predictor of the future, we expect to be able to describe it in one word: unprecedented.


Errol St.Clair Smith

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I'm the executive producer of BAM Radio Network, which means I get to eat, sleep and drink education talk radio. Over the last 10 years, I've been a fly on the wall in over 4,500 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. :)

  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Tuesday, 05 July 2016

    I really enjoyed reading your reflections Errol. "Unprecedented" is right. I love "Body And Mind" - made me think of the Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) line from The Matrix: "The body cannot live without the mind" - also true in education :). I appreciate the mention and I am grateful for being welcomed, included, and encouraged by the BAM Radio Network family. I think that in the next 9+ we can "Crush It."

  • Errol St.Clair Smith
    Errol St.Clair Smith Tuesday, 05 July 2016

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Oskar. I still remember your first blog post. "This Ain't No Industrial Age Homie: Teaching in the Information Age. " I saw the title, smiled, and read it with delight. Your post was thoughtful, poignant, creative and spoke truth in a way that resonated with me.

    I remember wondering if the title was too edgy, but even before getting the Rosa Isiah-Perez wake up call, I had begun to feel a deep need to hear and share more courageous thinking. I appreciate that you've continued to drop your special brand of genius on us every month since then. I'm grateful to be connected with you, my brotha' and I'm looking forward to seeing where your Starbucks project leads. Big fan!

  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Wednesday, 06 July 2016

    Errol I wasn't exactly sure how to comment on a piece in which I, among others, was mentioned. Because it felt good to be considered even just a small part of something so large. But then I thought, there is nothing wrong with feeling good. Too often, too many of us, students included, go home feeling bad. That must stop and I think it will. So first of all thank you for mentioning me.

    Your synopsis of the evolution of educator voice was spot on. I think our voices must be heard. And sometimes when we take chances we are going to make mistakes and that is okay. If we feel as if we have no voice, what could our students possibly think? We must speak for them until they are able to either speak for themselves or they have a sufficient platform from which they can be heard.

    I know that you and those at BAM will continue to take chances, make mistakes, and push forward so that the road ahead doesn't seem as daunting. And while I know we "have many rivers to cross" I feel confident that with you by our side, we will in fact "find our way."

  • Errol St.Clair Smith
    Errol St.Clair Smith Wednesday, 06 July 2016

    I know of nothing more fulfilling than doing meaningful work with great people. What a privilege to be alive at a time when the tools for sharing knowledge, wisdom and personal expression are more robust and open than ever before in history. Love the way you are using your voice and I'm thrilled to be supporting your work. We're already beginning to hear the echoes. Bravo my friend!

  • Rita Wirtz |  @RitaWirtz
    Rita Wirtz | @RitaWirtz Monday, 25 July 2016

    Errol, You are an outstanding writer, communicator and leader. By your efforts, you bring thousands of voices to this extraordinary educational conversation. Gratitude and bravo.

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