• At 80, Briones leads the largest bureaucracy with hundreds of thousands of personnel and millions of students.
• ‘They say I am already old but I believe I have the youngest ideas. There is no correlation between the state of my knees and the state of my brain,’ she said.
• Believing that education must continue even amid a pandemic, she motivated key officials of DepEd to come up with the Basic Education – Learning Continuity Plan (BE-LCP).
• Briones served as Vice-President for Administration and Finance of the University of the Philippines System. Before she was appointed in 2016, she was chair of the Silliman University Board of Trustees, and Regent and Chair-Designate of the Universidad de Manila. She also served as Secretary to the Commission on Audit and served as treasurer of the Philippines.
• ‘When you’re in the government, you are thought to be the most inept, the most stupid,’ she lamented.
Considering her age, Education Secretary Leonor Magtolis Briones may not be considered “healthy” in the eyes of many.
But, at 80 years old, Briones is one notable frontliner –leading the largest bureaucracy with hundreds of thousands of personnel and millions of students under it – at a time of a pandemic.
As the country celebrates National Women’s Month this March, the woman at the helm of the Department of Education (DepEd) shared the challenges, triumphs, and frustrations that come with the position, and how she has found ways to survive in the midst of it all.
Embracing a ‘new normal’
When lockdowns were imposed in 2020 due to the threat of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), DepEd was among the agencies forced to adapt a remote working environment where face-to-face meetings were highly discouraged.
Briones believed that education must continue even amid a pandemic. So she motivated key officials of DepEd to come up with the Basic Education – Learning Continuity Plan (BE-LCP).
Though virtually, Briones and other DepEd officials have been meeting more often. In a matter of months, DepEd –under her leadership –was able to overhaul the education system which led to a “victorious” school opening on Oct. 5.
“To be able to open classes, in the framework of a pandemic, is a victory of Filipino learners,” she said.
A test of strength
No matter how strong and confident a person is, there will be times when one’s strength will be tested.
This is the case for Briones, who, despite being a distinguished academic and teacher, public official, and social activist, became an easy target especially on social media.
“Before DepEd, I had a reputation,” Briones told the Manila Bulletin in a phone interview.
As a Professor Emeritus of the University of the Philippines-National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG), she has a wealth of experience in the administration of academic institutions and administering public institutions. She is also an articulate advocate on economic and social development issues.
Briones served as Vice-President for Administration and Finance of the University of the Philippines System. Before she was appointed in 2016, she was Chair of the Silliman University Board of Trustees, and Regent and Chair-Designate of the Universidad de Manila. She also served as Secretary to the Commission on Audit and served as treasurer of the Philippines.
Despite this, Briones felt that these do not seem to matter to some people at all. “When you’re in the government, you are thought to be the most inept, the most stupid,” she lamented.
When she accepted the position, Briones was “optimistic, hopeful, and confident” that things will work out. However, the way some people – especially those in social media – behaved came as a shock to her.
“I knew what I was getting into but never have I imagined the cruelty, the ignorance, and the viciousness that I will witness which are all very intense,” she said. “In my whole life, I have never been excoriated before,” she added.
Briones was –and still is –being called many names but she chooses not to retaliate. “I cannot fight using the same weapons because that is not how I was brought up, it is not in my personality, it is not who I am,” she said.
Weapons for survival
Amid the challenges, Briones considered her personal faith as her ultimate weapon for survival. She is a member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.
Briones also remained grateful for government’s support – especially coming from the President.
Despite being constantly “attacked without rhyme or reason,” Briones continues to draw strength from her family and friends. “One of the best advice I got from my friends is not to ‘make your enemies happy’,” she said.
Having to deal with criticisms from various quarters, Briones finds solace in music, books, and film.
By now, many would have known that Briones is a singer – a soprano at that!
“I was brought up with love for music and the arts,” Briones said. “It helps me to understand the pain and despair that we have to face,” she added.
Currently, she is the president of the Manila Concert Choir (MCC) which is composed of professionals coming from various fields.
Love for reading
Briones also loves reading books and is fond of telling stories.
During interviews and press conferences, Briones would talk about her favorite writer Frank Herbert. She also idolizes theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking –especially his theory of travelling back in time.
As an educator, what Briones misses the most is teaching. During classes, she would discuss with her students Greek and Roman mythology and the story of “Robin Hood” – among others –and how these are related to public finance and taxes.
“We would discuss ‘Game of Thrones’ especially my favorite character Jon Snow but after a while, we stopped because he died!” she said in a jest.
Age is a state of mind
Despite limitations, Briones continues to attend to her duties almost 24/7 – staying in the office signing papers, attending virtual meetings, and reviewing policies until the wee hours of the morning.
“They say I am already old but I believe I have the youngest ideas,” Briones said. “There is no correlation between the state of my knees and the state of my brain,” she added.
While some of her critics continue to poke fun at her age, Briones maintained that it does not have anything to do with intelligence. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80—just as there are brilliant young people, there are also brilliant old people,” she said.
Amid all the noise, Briones chooses to endure and stand firm with what she believes in. “I cannot deal with them in the same manner, it is not in my system,” she said. “So I will just wait for the day that I will become ‘bright’ in their eyes again,” she said.
* Photos from DepEd Philippines Facebook, Leonor Magtolis Briones Facebook