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Leadership lessons from Empower18

Education leader Fred Ende shares 10 leadership and learning lessons from ASCD Empower18.

8 min read




This past weekend, I had the honor to act as both a learner and a leader at this year’s ASCD conference in Boston. This year’s conference, like those in the past, was an exemplar of what conference learning should be: opportunities to stray outside of one’s comfort zone as well as chances to learn within it; the chance to be both an active learner when we have the physical, mental and emotional energy; and, the option to take on a more passive role when we need to reflect and recharge.

With so many different learning paths – including transformational leadership, poverty and equity, and teaching the whole child — there was more to learn than any blog post could explore or one brain could absorb. With that in mind, in no particular order, what follows are my top 10 leadership and learning lessons taken from my time at Empower18. Did these lessons land on your top 10 list as well? What would you add, remove or emphasize?

Lesson 1: Growth and learning, across all roles, is the key to everything we do.

In the first session I attended during Empower18, I had the pleasure of hearing from educators who were speaking to the impact that the National Board Certification process has had for educators across their district. Two of the educators, speaking on behalf of the district they are employed by, highlighted how the process emphasizes the importance of continuous improvement and allows for teachers to exhibit the necessity of learning to all those in the school community. Without growth, we can never get better. And without improvement, we can never be all that we need to be for those we serve.

Lesson 2: We all need to be able to find our people.

Education can be a lonely profession. And, at a conference like Empower18, even though we all have lots in common, it can be hard to connect with close to 10,000 of our closest friends. During Jill Biden’s keynote, she emphasized the fact that the challenges of working in a profession as important as education require us to find our “people” — the colleagues who will push us to do better, be better and want better for those we serve as well as for ourselves. Biden’s comment made me reflect on many of the relationships I have formed over my career thus far and how influential many of these have been. Whoever our people are, we need to work tirelessly to find them, and we need to keep expanding that list, so they continue to help us grow and we, in turn, pay it forward.

Lesson 3: The best of us constantly see challenges as opportunities, and every opportunity as a gift.

Biden also spoke of how the best learners and leaders welcome challenge constantly, as they know that a challenge is simply an opportunity that needs to be dusted off and polished. By focusing on the “what could be,” rather than the “what isn’t,” these incredible people prove that difficulties are merely obstacles for us to move and should never be considered walls to block us. The best of us also do more than welcome challenge; they see each opportunity as a gift to be cherished. Biden’s remarks about challenge, opportunity and gifts made me realize just how much work I need to do in my own growth and how much I could benefit from adopting her comment as a mantra.

Lesson 4: Be wary of assumptions.

This wasn’t a new lesson for me, but it was reiterated during the conference. A session a colleague and I facilitated focused on leveraging relationships to do great work. We had assumed, based on all the amazing educators who were also presenting during our time period, that we would have a small but mighty crowd in our session. With that in mind, we made copies for a smaller number of potential attendees. Imagine our surprise and joy when our session was standing room only. While we were overjoyed with the response, we were saddened that we had allowed our assumptions to cloud our preparation and thinking. So, while we must always be wary of cutting pragmatism in favor of blind optimism, we also must make sure that we never let our assumptions be our sole guide.

Lesson 5: There is never a dearth of great ideas and fascinating evidence.

I spent some time in a session that dove into how we can measure student learning when it comes to STEM-based professional development. One of the aspects of this session that intrigued me was how much information is out there and how we can benefit from extending our current reach to explore some new areas. While my previous work had been in the STEM-fields, over the last few years my boundaries have grown much wider. It was interesting to hear what research is saying, and, by extension, what that means for the work that we all do.

Lesson 6: Giving of ourselves can be easy.

ASCD as an organization has done much for me, and I am always happy to give back. With that in mind, I had signed up to serve as a volunteer at the ASCD Center as a book docent. I learned quite a bit in this process. First: I probably make a better walker and talker than I do a book docent. Second: I have a lot of reading to do; there are just too many great texts out there and never enough time for me to explore them all. Finally: sometimes just being there is enough. As I left the ASCD Center and thanked the staff — and apologized that I didn’t feel as if I really did anything — one of employees there said something like, “It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do; it was just great to have you here.” So, why not give more of ourselves more often? If it is that easy, what do we have to lose?

Lesson 7: We learn best when the space we’re in physically matches the space we’re in mentally.

Let me paint a picture to help you understand what I’m talking about here: Over the last two years, ASCD has begun offering a learning path at its annual conference titled “Learning Labs.” These longer sessions are designed to allow session participants to lead for most of the time. They include heavy involvement from those in attendance, whether it be through planning, writing, designing etc. That means attendees don’t have the option to be passive learners in these types of sessions. What these sessions taught me is that we have to ask ourselves what we’re looking for when we attend a conference or learning session. Do we want to be actively involved or not? And, based on our answer, what type of space must we physically be in to match the space we’re in mentally and emotionally? These are a series of questions I will be asking myself much more frequently moving forward.

Lesson 8: Clarity reigns supreme.

Our ability to be clear determines our effectiveness in all that we do. A simple experience brought this home for me while on a lunch break during the conference. I was waiting in line to purchase food and drink and never received a receipt. I walked back to the counter and said, “Excuse me, I never received a receipt”. To which the cashier simply replied, “That’s because you never asked for one.” And she was 100% correct. When we don’t clearly express what we need, want or wonder about, we leave it up to others to make their own assumptions. And when their interpretations don’t match our expectations, we only have ourselves to blame.

Lesson 9: It’s all about the relationships.

I’m cheating a bit on this one. This is a lesson that I try to embed into all the work I do. So, it isn’t really something I have to work hard to remember. That said, listening to Manny Scott talk about how relationships form the base of his “RESPECT” method for helping all learners succeed helped to solidify the idea that we are nothing if not for the partnerships we develop with others. While we all do great work individually, we do greater work when we rely on others and when they rely on us.

Lesson 10: Time waits for no one.

Almost everything we do has a deadline, and we have no way to turn back time. Since time will march on whether we are ready or not, we have to work within its boundaries. That means we have to stretch ourselves to work with what we’ve got — and this goes for resources other than time as well. While the need for more time is always present, we are quite lucky to have the time we do have to accomplish what we can.

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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