Reflection

Meet M. René Islas, Chief External Relations Officer at Leading Educators

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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.

“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?

MRI: Yes!

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.

Meet Kelvey Oeser, Chief of Networks at Leading Educators

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Kelvey Oeser recently joined Leading Educators as the first Chief of Networks.  Throughout her career, she has worked with diverse communities of educators to spark wide-reaching school improvement.  Here she shares about the experiences that have shaped her leadership and her vision for the journey ahead.

LE: Hi, Kelvey. What an exciting time! For those in the Leading Educators movement who are meeting you for the first time, tell us a little bit about yourself.

KO: Hi! I’m excited to join this collective effort in a new capacity. I have been in this work of helping schools and school systems improve opportunity for the past decade. As a result, I have developed some deep beliefs about what it will take to achieve more equitable outcomes for all kids.

First, people are our most valuable asset.  The work we do will only be successful if we develop and grow leaders at all levels of education. We have to take care of our people, build strong relationships with each other, support people to do their best work, make the work fun, and allow people to lead by building trust and giving people ownership and autonomy over their work.

Second, diversity and inclusion is critical to achieving equity.  We have to build strong, diverse, and inclusive cultures in order to have within-school and within-system equity, and to achieve more equitable outcomes for kids.  We need all perspectives to be heard to make shared ideas and our solutions better, and we especially need to amplify perspectives within the communities we exist to serve.  We need to foster inclusive culture in order to develop, retain, and promote diverse leaders over time.

“Providing teachers with higher quality, more rigorous instructional materials and then aligning all of the training and support they receive to the materials they are expected to use is just the beginning of making teaching easier and more effective.”

Third, communities and context matter. Organizations like ours should be partnering with communities and not doing work to communities.  We will only be able to achieve stronger outcomes for students, and ensure these outcomes are sustainable over time, if we are really listening to and working with communities to ensure the work responds to their needs and contexts.  We need to understand the factors that drive their long-term investment in and demand for this work to continue over time. Education nonprofits and district leaders come and go, but the community always remains.

LE: You’ve been an educator for a long time, and you have also supported the growth of thousands of educators in a variety of contexts. What have you learned about what educators want and need to be their best selves?

KO:  Teaching is hard. I learned that first-hand as a middle school teacher in East Los Angeles, and I have re-learned that fact many times in my roles designing training and development for teachers.  There isn't one answer to what it will take to improve instruction at scale.  I have learned many hard lessons about things that don't work as the "silver bullet" for supporting and developing teachers.  

Working at TNTP with a focus on teacher development during the release of The Mirage was an especially humbling experience.  It required me to confront and reconcile my work with report findings which showed that almost all of the teacher development efforts districts are currently implementing don't work.  I have learned that teachers can't do everything that is currently being asked of them really well, sustainably, and at scale, especially with the additional content knowledge and rigor that is required by Common Core-aligned standards. We have to find ways to make this work easier for them and not harder.  The answer cannot be piling more stuff on a teacher's plate or to just recruit and select more "superstar" teachers who can somehow do it all.

Providing teachers with higher quality, more rigorous instructional materials and then aligning all of the training and support they receive to the materials they are expected to use is just the beginning of making teaching easier and more effective. That is one of the big reasons I was drawn to Leading Educators.  

I also believe the teacher mindset work we do at Leading Educators is critical. I have seen teachers struggle--and I struggled as a new teacher--to put more rigorous content in front of students because of unconscious bias about what students are capable of doing. Teachers sometimes lower expectations for students over time, and there is a tendency to hold onto problematic beliefs about what teaching can and should look like.  As a new teacher, I thought my role was to do everything possible to help my kids “get it”, and I was scared to let them struggle too much because they might fail. Of course, now I know that wrestling with content is part of learning.

I also believe we need to be thinking about other models for the teacher role, ways we can be better utilize technology and personalized learning, and ways we can restructure school and district support systems to more substantially change the way teaching and learning happen in schools. I’m excited about LE's ongoing work around enabling conditions and upcoming partnerships that will explore the intersections of content-based professional learning, technology and personalized learning.

LE: You have another important role in life as the mother to Elias and Abigail.  As a parent, what’s top of mind for you when you think about the kind of education every child deserves?

KO:  Having kids definitely gave me a new perspective on the education system.  Every time I walk into a classroom now, I ask myself: "If this was Elias's or Abigail's classroom, would this be okay?".  And, unfortunately, too often the answer to that question is "no", which breaks my heart and increases my urgency for the work we are doing.  

When I was first looking for daycare and pre-K options for Elias, I chose to enroll him in a private Montessori-based program.  I didn't know much about the Montessori approach at the time, but after doing several walk throughs of local daycare facilities and asking a lot of questions of the teachers and program leaders (that were likely way more detailed than they usually get from parents), I picked the Montessori-based program because it was the only place where I felt the school leader and teachers could clearly define what they meant by "focusing on the whole child". They could articulate a clear and detailed continuum of learning from the earliest developmental stages. They were aligned to some of the most important outcomes that I wanted for Elias which included that he learned to love learning, learned independence, and learned how to operate successfully in school as well as life.

After going through this process with Elias, the reality of the opportunity gap in education became so much more real to me as I recognized how privileged I was to be able to access and afford a daycare that aligned with what I most wanted for Elias's longer-term education.  So many parents don't have that choice. I also began to see how different my vision of the education I wanted for my own kids was from the schools and classrooms we were often holding up as "exemplars" in the teacher training that I was helping to design and implement.

This experience led me to do two things. The first was to join the board of a newly formed organization called Montessori for All, which is an Austin-based, public charter management organization.  They seek to open and lead free, high-performing, authentic Montessori schools that partner with families to help children in diverse communities reach their extraordinary potential intellectually, emotionally, socially, creatively, culturally, and physically, so that they can pursue lives full of meaning and joy.  

The second is that I began on a journey to better align my work and to a vision for instruction and student outcomes that more closely reflects what I want for my own kids. To be clear, I don't think that the Montessori-approach is the only vision for what great instruction should look like. But I think there are elements of the approach, especially the clearer and more holistic definition for student outcomes, that all parents want for their kids and therefore that should be driving how we train and support teachers.


LE: We know you bring many other experiences and and interests with you in your daily life, so we’re going to close with some rapid questions. Are you ready?

KO: Yes!

LE: Describe yourself in a hashtag.

KO: #I'mTooOldToUseHashtagsCorrectly

I had to phone a friend for this one. She recommended #introvert because I'm kind of an introvert.  I am exhausted by small talk and large group facilitation, and I get a ton of energy from building deep relationships and having purposeful conversations.  However, I also really enjoy and am motivated by spending time building, expanding, and deepening my network of friends and colleagues.

LE: If your life was a book, what would it be called?

KO: Cycling Your Way Through Zoom Calls: The Kelvey Oeser Journey.  I have a desk bike, and my remote LE team members will likely see me rocking back and forth on a Zoom call soon.  

LE: Where’s your favorite place in the world?

KO: The front deck of my house in Austin.  We built it a couple of years ago, and I love going out there in the evenings to sit, listen to music, drink a glass of wine, talk with my family, read a book, say "hi" to the neighbors as they go on evening walks, watch the kids ride their bikes, and watch the sunset.

LE:  Coffee or tea?

KO:  Both, I am a caffeine addict, and I find drinking hot drinks comforting.  I drink coffee all morning, and then I switch to hot tea if I need something relaxing and less caffeinated to drink in the afternoon or evening.  

LE: What are three things you can’t live without?

KO: Do people count as a "thing”?  If so, my family is definitely first on my list.  Then, my dogs. And, finally would be a good book.  Just don't ask me to pick which one.

LE: Most adventurous thing you’ve done in your life?

KO:  I've never done anything too extreme in terms of adventures.  My husband and I went ziplining in Costa Rica when we were on our honeymoon, which was pretty fun, extremely beautiful, and also a little scary.  We're about to go back to Costa Rica for my birthday in March, and I'm planning to learn how to surf, so I will be able to add that to my adventure list.  

The Power That We Hold

Lacey Robinson, Chief of Program and Engagement at UnboundEd, joined us at the 2018 Leading Educators Institute to share a version of her influential keynote, “Footlocker and Fridays.”  During the 50-minute address, Lacey shares the story of Shiloh, a former student of who dreamed of being a teacher. Past tense.

Using Shiloh’s story as an anchor, Lacey unpacks the systemic roots of oppression and racism that limit the opportunities of students of color and students in low-income environments. She challenges educators to understand their role in creating reparations in our schools through rigorous instruction.

Watch below:

More About Lacey Robinson:

Lacey Robinson has more that 20 years in education as an educator, principal, and staff development specialist with a focus on literacy, equity, and school leadership. As chief, program and engagement, Lacey is responsible for engaging with external partners including collaborators in the K-12 education space as well as district and system leadership to support standards-aligned, content-focused adult learning and professional development.

She oversees key design and execution elements for primary external UnboundEd service offerings, including Communities of Practice (CoP) and Standards Institute (SI) and the national programs. Previously, Lacey was the senior director of implementation for the national Transforming Teams program at New Leaders, a nonprofit that trains aspiring and current school leaders. Lacey is certified in facilitative leadership and has served as a staff development specialist nationally and internationally, most recently working with the Medical School of Rwanda on organizational and change management.

What Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Mean for Teaching

Dr. G.T. Reyes joined us at the 2018 Leading Educators Institute to share his perspective on the "why" behind diversity, equity, and inclusion and what they mean for teacher practice.  Dr. Reyes argues that we need to dismantle systems and structures that were designed to exclude in the first place to create schools where all students can succeed.

More About Dr. G.T. Reyes

Settling in modern-day East Oakland, which is ancestral land to the Huichin Ohlone, Dr. G.T. Reyes is a community-engaged scholar-artist-organizer.  His work is grounded in a commitment to the empowerment of young folks, teachers, school leaders, and cultural workers to value their ancestral traditions while radically imagining and building capacity in ways that can transform their own realities. As an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership for Social Justice program at California State University, East Bay, he recognizes and honors the native Yrgen land where the city of Hayward settles upon while seeking to be an active part of cultivating a program that has liberatory potential and power within local communities.  His approaches to educational leadership and critical research is rooted in socio-cultural traditions that decenter whiteness and coloniality.

He has worked as a teacher and school leader in K-12 schooling, as an educator and organizational leader in youth development, and as a teacher education and teacher development scholar in higher education.  Some of his work as a public intellectual and community-engaged scholar investigates Critical, Humanizing, Culturally, and Politically Determined pedagogies and teacher development; Principled, socioculturally-grounded, values-centered, purpose-driven educational leadership and organizational development; Participatory Action Research and problem of practice inquiry; Art, digital media, and Hip Hop as critical race counter-storytelling; Critical, anti-oppressive, and humanizing frameworks of social and emotional learning; and English Language Arts as liberatory education.

In addition to his work at Cal State East Bay, he is a founding school designer for the forthcoming Homies Empowerment Community High School.  He completed his Post Doctoral Fellowship from Stanford University and his Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, Society, and Culture in Education at the University of California at Berkeley.  

#PracticeMakesPossible: What I Learned at the Leading Educators Institute

Raye Wood is a teacher leader at Burton Elementary School in Greater Grand Rapids.  She is entering her thirteenth year in the classroom, and she completed her Doctorate of Education last spring.  She is a huge advocate for amplifying teacher voice and often blogs about her experiences in the classroom and beyond.

Wow.  Where do I begin?  How can I share with you—through mere words—the energy, the passion and the thirst for change that was the Leading Educators Institute?

I am changed in a way that I did not realize I could still be changed, and I expect that I will be forever grateful.  I’ve been in the classroom for twelve years, and I am hardly new to professional learning. But in just a few short days, I experienced a new kind of learning  that challenged my perspective, changed my expectations, and validated what I know our students need. How amazing is that?

My school was part of the first Leading Educators cohort from greater Grand Rapids.  Having finished my first year at our school as well as the intense process of writing a doctoral dissertation, I joined our school team this spring and attended LEI with the new cohort.  So, there I was with a group of people, many of whom I had never met, walking into four absolutely life-changing days. This group of new friends validated the beliefs I hold and walk with daily, they challenged some of those beliefs with great care, and they helped me stretch my perspective and ways of thinking. Because of them, I am more reflective, more passionate, and even more dedicated to the work I do every day.  Every teacher deserves that gift.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Because my colleagues began leading Leading Educators’ model of content learning and practice at our school last year, I came into the week with the experience of a teacher who has seen the end result of LEI first-hand.  Though, I had already experienced Content Cycle protocols and workshops last year, I gained a deep appreciation for the work having experienced the planning process at LEI.  Everything I was unclear about before burst forth in one large A-HA moment. That in and of itself is powerful. Now, as a “Lead Learner”, I can’t wait to use my content knowledge and passion alongside my colleagues to make our school more equitable for every single child who enters our doors.

  • We had some absolutely amazing guest speakers.  At times, I was moved to tears (in my eyes as well as on my cheeks if we are being totally honest) because I see the mistakes so many of us have made with the best of intentions. I often say, “You don't know what you don't know.”  And LEI showcased some of that. Our keynote speakers admitted to having made mistakes because we all do. Imagine standing before an entire room of educators and admitting that you helped perpetuate false narratives around students of color. That takes serious heart and vulnerability, and it pushed all of us to own our impact.  Dr. GT Reyes noted that you don't have to be the teacher of the year to make a difference, and it made my heart sing.

  • On Thursday, we heard from Lacey Robinson from UnboundEd.  To hear her speak in person was amazing. Again, she boldly shared that she know she has messed up.  To admit that in front of a community of teachers who she didn't know was powerful and brave. One quote really stuck with me: “We have to get past what makes us feel good and do what is right by our students.”  

I look back at my first few years of teaching from my current vantage point and I can see the mistakes I was making. At that time, I used the knowledge that I had and did what I thought was right (Leveled library, anyone?). Once you know you are making the wrong moves and you work toward changing them, you are growing. It is when you know you are making wrong moves but you keep doing what you've always done that we have a problem. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to be willing to push through that discomfort because it is what will fuel the most important shifts in our practice.

Truly, it's hard for me to fully express how much I appreciate the opportunity to experience LEI in this way. And now when I go back to my school in August as a “Lead Learner”, I'm going to work hard to remember that many of my colleagues don't have the benefit of having the "back story" of the work we are trying to do. I'm going to push for our team to really take a step back for a moment and re-invest ourselves in the bigger picture. To  do our best by students, I fully believe that we have to work together in a way that pushes our thinking, challenges our biases and the false narratives we have inadvertently carried with us, and strive to make education truly equitable for every child regardless of their status, ethnicity, gender, race, welfare, or zip code.

Together, I am certain that we can improve education for all kids.

Checking in with Instructional Specialist Michelle Morrow

Michelle Morrow is the Instructional Specialist at North Godwin Elementary School in Grand Rapids, MI and part of the 2017 Leading Educators Grand Rapids cohort.  This past July, Michelle spoke with us about her vision for school transformation after attending the 2017 Leading Educators Institute (LEI).  We checked in with Michelle to hear about her team’s experiences during the fall semester.   

LE: When we spoke with you in July, you said LEI was one of the most intense and rewarding professional opportunities of your career thus far.  What were you looking forward to as you entered the fall semester?

MM:  I was most excited to see how our team’s learning would translate into our school culture and ultimately what it would look like in the classroom.  I knew the equity sessions at LEI had a powerful impact on our team, so I was also excited to explore how having the equity lens front of mind might impact how our teacher leaders speak about the standards, their instructional practice, and our students’ learning.     

LE: What were some of your team’s specific priorities for the fall?

MM: We not only wanted to increase teacher collaboration within our school from a functional perspective but also have those collaborative conversations anchored in equity, evidence, and rigorous standards.  Our staff has the best of intentions for our students and they have worked extremely hard to open up their classrooms and collaborate with each other.  Our goal was to deepen these collaborative conversations and push ourselves to examine our instructional design and delivery through an equity lens.

LE: How did you use your team’s professional learning plans to get to that place?

MM: We began the school year with professional development where staff members challenged their biases and opened themselves up to be honest and vulnerable with each other.  This continued in the work of our cycles of professional learning (CPLs) when we narrowed in on creating lessons and units that were rigorous with the proper scaffolding so all of our students could access high standards.  Beyond our regular content learning as adults, we have also had teams practice challenging conversations with their colleagues in order to push the envelope for our school culture.  All of these experiences have helped increase collaboration to a deeper and more meaningful level.

LE: What was challenging about implementing this work?  What surprised you or others on your team?

MM: Time.  With our district having several other priorities on the table, our team had to get creative in meshing them together.  We did not want this to come off as ‘one more thing’ to do, so our team had to carve out additional time to design the CPLs as part of our districts goals.  I wouldn’t say this surprised me because of the dedication and willingness of our team, but I’m always amazed by the commitment that educators have to making changes that help their students get the most out of school.  Our team made a commitment to come to work 60 minutes early two days a week to continue our instructional work, and they also gave up their prep period  once a week to review their session facilitation.  Our team even created a website where staff participating in the CPL could have easy access to presentations and materials.  They are the hardest working bunch I know!  

LE: What has been your biggest win so far?

MM: We had more than half of our elementary staff volunteer their personal time and come to work 60 minutes early for eleven weeks to attend our first round of professional learning sessions.  Because we did not have this time built into the master schedule for this year, it is amazing to see the dedication of not only my teacher leaders, but also their peer teachers who also gave up their time to participate in instruction-focused learning.  

LE: What advice do you have for others leading similar work across the country?

MM: Keep with it!  It is tough, and the wins might feel small, but look carefully enough and you will see those little wins adding up to much bigger successes. Every tough step through the mud is a step that gets us closer to closing the equity gap.