M. René Islas joined Leading Educators this month as Chief External Relations Officer. He is a lifelong advocate for students and families, holding positions at the U.S. Department of Education, several nonprofit organizations, and school support partners. Here he shares about the experiences that have shaped his leadership and his vision for helping schools ignite potential:
LE: What should the Leading Educators community know about you?
MRI: I am always looking to improve. This starts with personal improvement but then extends to other things in my life. I am a consultant by nature and always start with the question, “How can we make things even better?” That’s the spirit of our growth value at Leading Educators, and I am excited to continue exploring how that commitment to building on strengths can lead to better experiences for students and families every day.
LE: You have worked in education for your entire career from many vantage points. What is the most influential lesson you’ve learned from an educator along the way?
MRI: I learned that despite our best efforts, systemic inequity still exists. It will take more than just teaching everyone well for students to overcome systemic barriers. As leaders in education, we must acknowledge that parts of our system are built to favor one group of students over another. Acknowledging this is the first step, then we need to search for, and implement, solutions that support all students to reach for their personal best.
LE: In your personal story, there are many connections between family and education. You spent a lot of time as a child with your grandfather who was a school principal, and you now have four children of your own. What have those experiences taught you about the kind of education every family should be able to expect for their children?
MRI: I was raised by generations of great educators. They are award-winning teachers and principals who have gone above and beyond the call of duty for their students. I can cite examples of how each of them looked at the individual children in their classrooms, searched for their individual strengths and needs, and then adapted their own professional skills to best support each student. Raising my children, I discovered that this professional practice demonstrated by members of my family are rare. My hope is that more educators will work to see each child as a unique bundle of potential that they will work to help blossom.
LE: You are person with many interests in addition to education, and we have a handful of rapid questions to scratch the surface. Are you game?
LE: Who is that teacher you will never forget?
MRI: My middle school English teacher. She challenged me to write an essay on advocating for civil rights. She showed me that she believed in my ability to persuade through the pen and then supported me to refine my message. I appreciate her encouragement and hope that I can inspire others as she did for me.
LE: What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
MRI: Jacob’s Ladder: Ten Steps to Truth. It's a fun, easy read, covering heavy stuff. I love philosophy!
LE: Who’s someone who inspires you?
MRI: Dr. Martin Luther King. He bravely chose the hard road--non-violent, direct action--to challenge our nation to turn away from systemic racism.
LE: Where’s your favorite place in the world?
MRI: Jamaica. It’s my family’s happy place.
LE: What are three things you can’t live without?
MRI: God. Family. Music.
LE: What are you most proud of in life so far?
MRI: My four kids. Each one of them brings a distinct set of gifts to our family and community.