'Nurture the seeds we planted'
Dear teachers and parents, administrators and staff, education partners and stakeholders:
Not too long ago—six years to be exact—I remember making those first cautious steps as I entered the hallowed halls of our Bulwagan ng Karunungan here at the DepED Central Office in Pasig where I received the department’s colors from my predecessor. At noontime today, I will return home to my community of De La Salle Brothers to be assigned to yet to another ministry still in education after a year of sabbatical.
At the start of my term, I was so stricken by the quixotic ideal to serve and change the system. At times I would be driven with a messianic complex and seek to be the savior of 47,000+ schools. I can’t help but take things personally when I would read about the travails of a student who would have to walk miles daily or the predicaments of a debt-ridden teacher on whom an extended family depends. Faced with the biggest bureaucracy in the Philippine government, it dawned on me after a while that I would end up disheartened if I even tried to singlehandedly overhaul the educational system just so I can leave my imprint in the department. (READ: DepEd's Luistro: A profile)
At one stage I thought it was about quick fixes like replacing broken glass on battered windows or painting over vandalized walls. At another time I thought about substantial changes such as addressing the backlog of 66,800 classrooms or even providing every learner with books they can actually bring home. But I also thought about radical changes such as the K to 12 reform which requires a complete restructuring of the educational system that we have gotten used to for nearly a century.
I am glad that I made the conscious decision to make unannounced visits to hundreds of schools especially those which are farthest from the center. It may be a serendipitous move and yet it left the most profound change in me. I realized it was not about the change that I can make in the world. Those whom I was privileged to meet in those unannounced visits have become my mentors. As a disciple at the foot of his master, I learned from you that it was not only about fixing broken windows or cleaning up ala Brigada Eskwela style. You taught me that it is about caring for every student in class as though he or she were my own child, and as though he or she is the only one in the world.
I cannot forget Principal Fe who was among the first to welcome students when school reopened after Typhoon Sendong. While nursing an injured leg, she was dutifully making the rounds of the campus checking on her students and inquiring on those who have not yet reported that day. When I asked why she has not sought medical attention, her reply stunned me: “But Brother, let me first account for every student and teacher under my care. When I am sure they are all safe, I can start worrying about my leg.”
I cannot forget Teacher Lorna, a newly-hired Muslim teacher who used her body as human shield to safeguard her primary school students against a deranged man who ran amok in her school that day. She was the sole earner in her family but she never hesitated to offer her life so that her students may live. She died from multiple stab wounds on her back but her students survived.
I cannot forget Teacher Vangie’s calming words before an agitated police officer who threatened to pull the pin of a grenade inside her classroom. Disregarding his threats, she asked if he had kids of his own with dreams for themselves. Having engaged him thus, she then pleaded with him to spare her students who shared those very same dreams. Her plea made him come back to his senses and caused him to surrender peacefully.
I thought my task was to inspire and encourage you but your commitment and true-to-life stories gave me the courage and inspiration to pursue with audacity the multiple and varied needs of every learner and stakeholder. Providing classrooms and furniture, computers and equipment took on a whole new meaning. It was no longer just about filling the gaps and addressing the backlogs of the past. It was about knowing and touching the lives of 24 million learners and walking with them side by side to pursue their dreams. It was about taking care of my long-lost sister and my long-lost brother.
Throughout our six-year-long journey, our reform took on a life of its own—not without our share of critics and detractors. Yet, amidst all the challenges and controversies, it was your passion and optimism that kept me committed to run the race to the finish. Just as you believed in our students, you also believed in me, and you believed in what we were fighting for.
We watched this reform evolve from a young vision, to a myriad of policies and programs that broke barriers and reached for the farthest stars. But we were more than watchers; we were the catalysts for its growth, and in the process we too grew with it. It has been our life for the past six years. As you have also been my life for the past six years.
I will return to a more private life with my Brothers in a religious community setting. But every time I would pass by a public school, I will always remember all the good times we shared and the tears we shed in our pursuit of a better future for our learners, and ultimately, for a better Philippines. Six years is too short a time to see big results. The seeds we have planted need to be nurtured for years. We need patience and faith that underneath the dark loam, the seed is alive and is growing. We need to see it through before we can enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Everyone who has been with us in this journey will remember that it began with a simple dream to make a difference in the lives of our Filipino learners. Over time, we saw ourselves not just doing the tasks and responsibilities required of us but eventually investing of ourselves to make those dreams happen. And then one day we woke up to realize that we were not just working to reach our goals but have actually fallen in love with those whom we sought to serve. There were disappointments and disagreements along the way. We made mistakes and at times hurt those who shared the same dream. Our convictions were not always solid and we also wavered and doubted and compromised. When the road ahead does not seem as straight and clear, it is important that we return to the compelling reason for embarking on this journey—and bring it back to life. When the fervor wanes, we need to reconnect with an anchor for our dreams and create new fire.
I cannot bring myself to say goodbye to a family that I have learned to love and which has been my life the past six years. With you and for you, I have fallen deeply in love with the only country I know. For me as it is for you, one chapter ends but a new one is just about to begin. I am excited to see how much more you will be able to accomplish in the years to come.
With everything that I hold dear in my heart, I will always remain, your brother, – Rappler.com
Br. Armin Luistro served a complete 6-year term as the secretary of the Department of Education under the Benigno S. Aquino administration. A feat only accomplished by two previous secretaries in the department's history.
This letter first appeared on Br Luistro's Facebook page and is republished here with his permission.