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10 lessons from Empower19

Fred Ende shares his key takeaways from ASCD's 2019 conference for educators.

8 min read




Reflection is a key component of learning. So, we need to allow ourselves an opportunity to reflect. So, while it isn’t always easy, I’m happy that I have some time on the flight back from ASCD’s Empower19 to share some thoughts on what an amazing experience it was for my growth as a person and as a professional.

This year, one of my overarching goals has been to strengthen my listening skills. I’ve been eagerly reading Shane Safir’s text, “The Listening Leader,” and have worked hard to implement a number of strategies and supports she discusses. With that in mind, for this piece, I’m sharing 10 lessons I’ve learned from Empower19 based on amazing quotes I internalized when listening or communicating with others (with a bit of a cheat thrown in there).

  1. “Will you be at the welcome reception this evening?” A colleague of mine, Lori McEwen sent me this via text upon arriving at Empower19. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Lori through ASCD conferences, and we make it a regular occurrence to check in at the start of the annual conference each year. Lori brings some great perspective from her work in Massachusetts, and I always appreciate her ability to connect ideas and help me think more deeply. Like many of the interactions I have at Empower, I always feel energized by the opportunity to reconnect. There is so much for us to learn; it is so important that we take every opportunity to connect with those who can help make us better.
  2. “I have to allow myself to take a pause” At an event on Friday night, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Hoerr and Jeffery Benson, two educators whose work I admire. Jeffery shared this comment when talking about some of the work he is doing with schools outside of Boston. He commented that he sees it as a requirement that he find ways to manage his time, rather than let time manage him. It reminded me that all of us work hard at what we do, and we need to make sure that we take the time to hit the pause button. This is an area I personally struggle with, and these two leaders helped me to remember how important stepping off the throttle is to our own success and well-being.
  3. “That’s amazing” So this is a bit of a cheat because I said this (and said it a bunch of times mind you), but I hope you’ll forgive me. Whether it was seeing the sunrise over Lake Michigan, hearing about how my colleague Billy Krakower had set up an interactive STEAM presentation in a room filled with chairs (and no tables) or listening to my colleague Tammy Musiowsky talk about her writing accomplishments, I took great joy from hearing about how those who impact me are continuing to make a difference every day. With so much to be appreciative of, we could all stand to be a little more amazed on a regular basis.
  4. “I wonder if… “ I was attending a governance session at Empower 19 (there are all types of learning sessions available at ASCD’s conferences), and Meghan Everette, the Executive Director of this governance group started her sharing of an idea with “I wonder if. . “. I smiled because it is a sentence starter I look to use regularly, and one that has made it easier for me to successfully engage with other people. My supervisor, Dr. Marla Gardner, shared it with me many years ago, and it has helped me to become a more active and aware questioner of all things. It reminded me that learning is about our willingness to wonder and to be content with not knowing the answer.
  5. “We’ll find a way“ When I arrived at the first general session of the conference, I realized I had a problem. There were no seats to be found, and standing in the back wouldn’t work (I’m a pretty vertically challenged guy). I ran into Eric Bernstein, an educator who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers and push back on ideas and processes. And what he said was right. We did find a way. Somehow we made our way to an upstairs seating area and grabbed two seats at a table that overlooked the general session. Eric reminded me that we are only hampered by the action we choose not to take.
  6. “We have to build a culture of ‘we’ in all that we do. It is never about you or me; it is always about us.” I love this quote shared by Dwayne read during the general session on Saturday. Reed was emphasizing the fact that our individual contributions pale in comparison to what we can accomplish together. Reed shared that he gets infinitely more joy from working together with others than he does when working along. It was heartening to hear him talk about how this community approach to work and life has resulted in much greater success than would otherwise be possible; by doing things we others, we come ever closer to benefiting all.
  7. “Everyone, regardless of their situation, deserves respect.” This quote, simply stated by Wade Powell during a session on relationship building spoke to a very real challenge we face today. Huge divisions in our society and regularly disrespectful talk has had a major impact on the direction of our discourse and the ways in which relationships form. Powell’s statement is one that we all must be willing to live by. Having respect for all, regardless of where people are in their lives, is the only way we can ever help to make things better for everyone.
  8. “Do you know the password?” I had the pleasure of getting together with a number of colleagues for a fun dinner at the SafeHouse in Chicago. Upon entering, our welcoming agent, Vee, asked us if we knew the password. Of course, we had no idea what the password might be. To gain entry we were instructed to mimic a number of hand movements that looked suspiciously like the Macarena. Upon gaining entry we received a round of applause for doing the Macarena on a big screen in the restaurant (apparently video is taken of all the poor patrons who don’t know the “password”). We had a good laugh at this, and Vee’s question helped me to remember that knowing the answer is nowhere near as fun as having no idea where things will take you.
  9. “I need to be able to make connections to the real world in order to transfer learning” I had the honor of co-facilitating a session on shifting from a professional development model to a professional learning one with educational leader, Jason Flom. During that session, Mary Helen King shared that one of her needs, in order to have learning hit home, is for it to be closely connected to the real world and experiences that she encounters. I couldn’t agree more. Her comment furthered my commitment to doing whatever I can to help those I work with (and myself) connect new ideas to established experiences. Learning is all about connections, and it is good to constantly remind ourselves that it won’t take hold unless those connections are deep.
  10.  “If we are willing to listen carefully, and if we are willing to provide everyone with voice, then we can better support the people we serve” During the general session on Sunday, Doris Kearns Goodwin shared that one of the major learnings of Abraham Lincoln was the idea of listening carefully to as many people as he could, and providing everyone, even his works detractors, with the opportunity to share their ideas, thoughts, and questions. Lincoln’s willingness to be a listener to all allowed him to be a president of the people and helped him to understand what it meant to lead a diverse community.  Doris Hearn Goodwin’s words during her session helped further solidify in me the belief that we will never be able to lead successfully if we aren’t willing to listen totally.

Through a number of days of listening, I’m leaving with a head and heart full of inspiration, energy and a willingness to be a better leader and learner in all that I do. I can’t wait to apply these listening lessons to all facets of my life, and I look forward to the next opportunity to participate in one of ASCD’s conferences.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book,Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his


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