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Squirrels in the Rose Garden

Lessons on hope and leadership from Jill Biden, Manny Scott and General Colin Powell.

7 min read


Squirrels in the Rose Garden

(General Colin Powell Photo Credit: Kanoe Namahoe)

Creative problem solving, fostering cross-cultural relationships and empowering teams to lead and innovate were just a few of the lessons delivered by keynote speakers Jill Biden, Manny Scott and General Colin Powell at this year’s ASCD Empower18 conference. Here is a roundup of takeaways from their sessions.

Jill Biden, college professor and former second lady of the United States

Educators find ways to lead through the chaos.

Support retention with practical mentoring. Retention is among the biggest concerns in education today, said Biden, particularly for students in community college. This challenge is what prompted Biden to start a mentoring program for female students, aimed at helping them manage issues related to academia and life, such as figuring out child care or registering for courses. “A lot of students are first-generation college students and as you all know, you have to know how to know,” Biden explained. “There’s no one at home who can say this is how you sign up for a course, or this is how you drop a course, or if you’re having problems with a teacher this is what you should do. If they don’t have any support like that then they fail.”

Advocate for community college. Encourage high-schoolers to do their first two years at a community college. “Four-year college isn’t for every student,” said Biden. “Community colleges are one of America’s best kept secrets. If [they] finish the two years at a community college then they can go into four-year colleges as juniors and save a lot of money. They get a great education. We have to get the word out.”

Find creative solutions. Biden told the story of Maha Al Ashqar, the principal at an all-girls elementary school on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Jordan had become home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and Ashqar’s school was overwhelmed by girls looking for an education. Unfortunately, the school did not have enough desks to accommodate new students so Ashqar was forced to turn many away. But when a desperate mother pleaded for a space – and told Ashqar what it took for her family to escape Syria– Ashqar couldn’t say no. Instead, she told the woman to send her daughter to school with a chair—any chair she could find. When Ashqar arrived at school the next day, she found a line of little girls, all holding chairs and waiting at the door.

This is what educators do, Biden said. Educators find creative ways to transition and solve problems. “When schedules get moved around, when students are in crisis, when we’re supposed to turn nothing into something, educators find ways to lead through the chaos,” she said. “We have to think on our feet. We have to use what we have and figure it out.”

Manny Scott, Freedom Writer, founder of Ink International and ASCD author

When you see me, you’re reminded that even on your worst day you can still be someone’s best hope.

Don’t lose hope. On Sunday afternoon, Freedom Writer and author Manny Scott, drew standing ovations from the crowd he both energized and inspired with a call to action for educators to renew their commitment to their work. Scott described his own path from losing hope and dropping out of school to the success he attributes to those people who helped him see that his “story didn’t have to be over.” “I believe that you are in education because you believe life at its best is about helping people, loving people, positioning other people to flourish, and it was people a lot like you who helped me become the man I am today. The man on the stage today would not be possible without people like you,” he said.

Build relationships. Scott described his REACH method for educating today’s students, developed from his own experiences along with extensive research he has conducted. “R stands for relationships. Everything that you and I hope to accomplish with our young people must pass through the door of relationships,” he said. For the all-important work of building relationships across diverse cultures, Scott described the need for six practices or behaviors: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding and serving.

“How do you serve? You engage.” Scott challenged educators to recognize cultural differences and engage students in culturally relevant ways, connecting “their context to your content.” He asked educators to consider whether their students can see themselves in the curriculum, and called on them to provide references that support the belief that they can succeed. “You might be the only one who tells them that they’re greater than their circumstances. You might be the only one to tell them that it’s not about where they come from but where they want to end up,” he explained. Students need to see examples of others who’ve faced similar challenges and who have succeeded, and also ultimately need someone willing to believe in them until they are empowered to believe in themselves, Scott said.

General Colin Powell (retired), United States Army

It’s that human connection that makes a person a good leader.

Trust and empower your teams. Powell shared a lesson he learned during his tenure as national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan. Powell met with the president each morning, in the Oval Office, to give him an update on security matters. One day, during one such meeting, Reagan seemed distracted, said Powell—he was looking past Powell’s shoulder out to the Rose Garden. Suddenly, Reagan jumped from his chair.

 “‘Colin, Colin! Look, look, look! The squirrels came and got the nuts I put in the Rose Garden!'” Powell recalled President Reagan saying. He tried to match the president’s enthusiasm. “Uh yes, Mr. President, I see that. I’m delighted.” Bewildered, Powell left the Oval Office and returned to his own office in the north-west wing.

“Then it struck me,” said Powell. He realized that Reagan’s actions, however odd, were intended to convey that he believed in, trusted and supported Powell.

“I never forgot that. And for the rest of my time as national security adviser, chairman [of the joint chiefs of staff] or secretary of state, I always tried to empower my line subordinates,” said Powell. “The reality is that you had to trust people and the only way they can believe you trust them is if you give them authority to act. And when you give them authority to act, they can get it done.”

Create human connections. Get to know the people on your team, on a personal level, advised Powell. When Powell was secretary of state, he often made time to talk with members of the garage staff and cleaning crew. He would ask about their day, their work and their families and express his gratitude for the work they do. “I want this person to know they’re not just a cleaner–they’re a valuable employee. They’re a fellow human being,” he said. Powell emphasized the importance of treasuring people and their efforts. “Respect everybody that’s in your organization and treat them as equal human beings,” he said. “It’s that human connection that makes a person a good leader.”

Defend patriotism and teach respect. Regardless of the issues that this country faces—terrorism, cybersecurity, debates over gun control—the United States is the greatest nation on earth, said Powell.

“The fact is that America remains the strongest, ” Powell said. “What we have to do is make sure the nation remains strong.” Powell urged educators to teach students to study the issues, listen to opposing viewpoints and engage in respectful dialogue. These are the practices that make America great, he said, and sustain her promises of freedom and possibility.

“This is the same country that created my parents almost 100 years ago,” Powell said as he concluded his talk. “[We] must never forget. It’s our past, it’s our present, it’s our future.”

Kanoe Namahoe and Katharine Haber are editors with SmartBrief Education.


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