An outpouring of love from the community celebrated Dr. Isela Russell’s being named one of three finalists for the TASA 2024 Elementary Teacher of the Year. The Texas Association of School Administrators will announce the winners in late October.
This is not the first time Dr. Russell has been honored for her excellence as an educator. On her road to the being a state finalist, she was named elementary Teacher of the Year in Texas Region 11 and Lewisville ISD. In her two-decades-long teaching career, she has received many awards, including the Texas Lifetime Honorary PTA Award and the 2010 Irving ISD Elementary Teacher of the Year.
The third-grade Spanish immersion program teacher at Wellington Elementary in Flower Mound for four years, Dr. Russell never lets herself be carried away by success. She holds two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree from UC Santa Barbara, and a doctorate from UT Arlington. Despite all her achievements, she’s always remained humble and grounded.
“I do my job day to day and don’t expect a reward other than seeing the progress of my students,” Dr. Russell said. “My dad has always told me, ‘You are not better than others, and others are not better than you.’ This reminds me that everyone does their best, and every teacher has a story to share.”
Dr. Russell was born in Los Angeles. Her family moved back and forth from Mexico to the US, looking for better work opportunities until they permanently moved to the US when she was 9. She repeated third grade because her dad could not communicate effectively with school officials when enrolling her.
“Growing up, we lived humbly, with creatures walking around the house,” Dr. Russell remembers. “We all slept on the floor in a single apartment. Drive-bys, gangs, and drug selling were part of our neighborhood. It was normal to be offered ‘white powder’ as we walked to our bus stop to get to school.
“When you live with certain circumstances, you believe that is your destiny, you believe it is normal, and you believe everyone else lives like you.”
Having been retained in third grade due to a language barrier really got to Dr. Russell, and that played games with her mind. She felt unheard, unseen, and dumb. Her middle school teacher, Mrs. Martindale, showed her otherwise and helped her regain her self-esteem.
“When you are fighting against the system and society, it is easier to give up. Mrs. Martindale did not want me to give up. I live her presence through my teaching experience and do not give up on my students.” Dr. Russell said.
“Every student needs a champion. Mrs. Martindale was my champion. She helped me see my potential. As educators, we are responsible for the future of this country, and we must be the champion or be the one for all students.”
Dr. Russell lives by everything she learned from Mrs. Martindale — discipline, patience, kindness, hard work, and her most significant advice, “Help one child at a time.” So, she followed in the footsteps of her role model, chose a teaching career, and graduated with her doctorate in 2013. “Sí Se Puede” or “Yes, we can” is the motto of the Russell family. Her husband is also an educator, teaching high school for LISD and holding an MBA from UTA. The couple has two daughters, and the family lives in Flower Mound.
Having a successful career and spending 20 years in a job hasn’t let Dr. Russell’s passion fade away. She has the same zeal and enthusiasm every time she enters a classroom. She says, for a teacher, it’s crucial to ask yourself questions: “What can I change? How can I be better? What can I learn from the teacher next door? Why did my students not learn this?”
“I guess I can say I am successful because I broke barriers to becoming the first in my family to have an educational path. My mother studied up to 6th grade, and my dad up to 1st grade. But success has many definitions. I am not rich financially, but I am rich in love with my family, husband, daughters, and the communities I have taught.”
Dr. Russell also emphasized that parents and adults should be aware of the emotional needs of a child. If the child is not mentally or emotionally stable, they cannot learn what is expected. So pay attention to the whole child before academic needs.
“Sometimes children need a hug or need to be heard before they can begin to work. Sometimes, we must put lesson plans aside or have a circle talk to move forward,” Dr. Russell said. “My message to all parents is that education is successful when we work as a team. Parents are our children’s first teachers. What we do, say, and model at home will transfer to the classroom. Once the child is of school age, parents and teachers must work closely to help the student be successful.”