Elliott Powell

Alumni | San Marcos

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"I would not be an effective teacher without the things I learned at CSU San Marcos."

Elliott Powell commanded warships and cleared minefields in the Gulf War. He was the first African American director of the Situation Room. But he still wanted to be of service, so he earned a teaching credential at CSU San Marcos.

It was fall 2014 and the final morning bell at San Marcos Middle School (SMMS) had sounded, sending about 30 seventh-graders scrambling to their seats. Suddenly, the room fell silent and all eyes were on the teacher.

That first day Elliott Powell stepped in front of a class to teach, there was only one word to describe how it felt: daunting.

“Once you close that door, you’re the show,” he says with a laugh. “You’ve got these kids for 50 minutes, and you’ve got to engage them.”

That’s not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone who once commanded U.S. Navy ships and was the first African American director of the Situation Room in the White House, where presidents and senior-level staff meet to confer.

But Powell says he felt prepared for the challenge of teaching because he received his credential from California State University San Marcos.

“CSU San Marcos made me an effective teacher so I could reach kids where they are,” he explains. “How am I going to reach that child from Vietnam who’s just beginning to understand English? Or the one with a processing disorder? That wasn’t in my skill set coming out of the Navy.

“I could get their attention, but what was I going to do with it?”

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On the Shoulders of Giants

Powell had always dreamed of working in education, but his first calling was the military. He received his commission as an officer in the United States Navy after graduating from college. He commanded a minesweeper during Operation Desert Storm and eventually went on to command four ships during his naval career.

But his appointment as director of the Situation Room, where he stood alongside President Clinton and President George W. Bush, was the highlight of Powell’s military career. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be somewhere like that,” says the father of two. “There were a lot of people who paved the way for me.

“To say I stood on the shoulders of giants is by no means an exaggeration.”

Reflect, Analyze, Adapt

When Powell and his wife, Veronda, had both retired, they made the move from Washington, D.C., to San Marcos. He decided it was finally the right time to pursue teaching and enrolled in CSUSM’s two-semester Middle-Leve​l Credentialing Program.

“One of the things [the professors] drilled into our heads is reflection,” he says. “[If] today’s lesson didn’t go well … what am I going to do tomorrow to make sure it does? I thought I knew how to do that, but, boy, did CSU San Marcos help me take it to the next level.

“To this day, I remember they always said, ‘You gotta reflect, analyze and adapt.’”

The past four years of teaching English and U.S. history at San Marcos Middle School have flown for Powell. It’s clear the new grandfather hopes not only to educate his students about these subjects, but to teach them emotional intelligence as well: “I want kids to be able to know what it is to fail and then pick themselves up and move forward.”

There’s little doubt his approach is working. Powell was honored in May 2017 as SMMS’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year—an impressive feat for someone so new to the field. “Elliott was a fantastic selection,” says SMMS principal Spencer Wavra. “He exemplifies what it means to be an educator and makes true connections with his students. He’s always a champion for doing what is in the best interest of children.”

Powell is ever the self-effacing military man. “The opportunity to show kids there is a bigger, brighter future out there if you prepare yourself is something I certainly don’t take lightly. 

“It is such an honor to be a teacher, and I would not be as effective as I am without the things I learned at CSU San Marcos.”

The opportunity to show kids there is a bigger, brighter future out there if you prepare yourself is something I certainly don’t take lightly.
— Elliott Powell



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