Uncovering My True Identity

My experiences with language began at very early age.  I was born in Puerto Rico where I lived the first four years of my life.  When I was four, we moved to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where my father worked for an American oil company.  This was basically the same routine throughout my childhood, traveling from place to place and always being the new kid on the block.  While my parents spoke Spanish exclusively at home, my sister and I were encouraged to learn English to be successful and “fit in” at school and social gatherings organized by my father’s company.  My father’s view of achievement was closely tied to his experiences in working with an American company. He saw this as the highlight of his career.  He had “made it” and now he wanted his children to do the same.  To this day, he sees English as a “language of success and prosperity”.

College was my biggest transition and challenge in terms of language, culture, and identity.  Up until this point, I had been protected and sheltered by my parents.  College was another story.  I went to Penn State (for my B.A. in International Politics) with dreams of a wonderful college life where football games, challenging classes, and new friends were waiting to be experienced.  I soon faced a culture shock when I arrived at my dorm.  I had to adapt to a new environment and new friends with different beliefs and experiences.

Throughout most of my childhood my sister and I had shared a room.  However, now I was to share a room with a total stranger who could not understand why I needed to call home almost everyday and receive my mother’s blessing (Bendición), why I pinned my hair up at night, or why I walked around my room on Sundays with big, pink curlers to straighten my hair.  Many of the girls on my floor had never been exposed to diversity and different ethnicities.  One friend told me that this was the first time she had seen a Hispanic girl.  Another one asked me how far away Puerto Rico was and how long the drive would be.  I told her she could certainly try to cross the Caribbean Sea in her car!

During my doctoral studies at UCONN, the experience was somewhat different.  As I walked through UCONN, I could see myself in the faces of many other students.  Yet, I still wondered if some of them were going through what I went through.  Trying to fit in and create an identity within a foreign environment.  Seeing these students and teaching them (as an adjunct professor), made me reaffirm my commitment to working with diverse communities and school districts where there is an increasing need for Latino/a professionals who understand students’ culture, identity, and need to “belong”.

Now as an adult, I realize that English has in fact become my “professional and academic language”.  The face I show at work, among my colleagues and peers, or at the department store even though some people might see me differently.  However, Spanish is who I am.  I continue to pray in Spanish and I feel out of place in an all English mass.  I find it hard to recite my prayers and connect with my spiritual self in another language that is not Spanish.  I pray in Spanish, feel, and cry in Spanish… I put a piece of bread and glass of water on top of my refrigerator so that I have “el pan nuestro de cada día” (our daily bread).  I have a little altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary and I am extremely superstitious.  I am so grateful for the gift that my father gave me of reading and speaking in English.  But it is with my mother that I have the greater debt, for she gave me the biggest gift of all: my true identity.  It is in Spanish that I am able to communicate with my inner self, my “YO” and where I will always feel at home.

Rekindling an Old Friendship: Three Key Professional Development Recommendations from 2006

 

This summer I decided to rekindle an old friendship that had been somewhat hiding in the shadows for the past 11 years.   I decided to dust off my doctoral dissertation published in 2006 and revisit the findings.  Back then, I was relieved to be done and anxious to put the process behind me.  Although I still have the occasional nightmare that a chapter is due, the friendship (or on some days enmity) had been relegated to a wooden bookcase.

My research focused on developing administrators as instructional leaders to support English Language Learners (ELLs).  The study attempted to shed some light on the level of understanding of three school administrators with regards to specific instructional practices and their implementation.

Not surprisingly, in 2017 the challenge remains.  The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that the percentage of public school students in the United States who were ELLs was higher in school year 2014–15 (9.4 percent, or 4.6 million students) than in 2004–05 (9.1 percent, or 4.3 million students).   The dramatic demographic shifts occurring all over the United States have placed greater demands on school leaders to expand their understanding of English Language Learners while supporting classroom teachers.  In urban school districts, the burden is greater.  Giving teachers and administrators the right tools to improve student outcomes and taking the time to explain the “how” is a necessary step in meeting district, state, and national accountability measures.

Three key recommendations from my 2006 findings stand true to this day:

  • Administrators feel the need for professional development to be on-going and systematic, as well as an opportunity to collaborate and network with other colleagues.
  • Professional development for administrators must be aligned with professional development for teachers.
  • Professional development must include topics on understanding students’ attributes, cultural backgrounds, and learning styles.

 

The need to provide more targeted and job-embedded professional development activities for administrators is imminent.  As we develop roadmaps for the upcoming school year, hopefully this research provides something to mull over during the warm and sunny summer days!

 

You can find the full doctoral dissertation here:

 

https://www.amazon.com/Administrative-Support-English-Language-Learners/dp/1546647333

http://digitalcommons.uconn.edu/dissertations/AAI3231250/ Continue reading

Healing Puerto Rico’s Schools

On September 20th, 2017 Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico as a high-end Category 4 hurricane.  While Puerto Rico has a long history with tropical storms, none of these were like Hurricane Maria.  This was the most intense storm to make landfall in the Caribbean island since the San Ciprian Hurricane of 1932, which was also a Category 4.

The path of destruction and devastation left behind is unprecedented.  Puerto Ricans are grappling with a sense of loss and displacement as they try to meet basic needs such as shelter, food, and water.  Progress has been slow.  As of October 23, 2017, at least 27% of Puerto Ricans have no water and 82% have no power.

At the center of this tragedy are 345,000 public school students who have been out of school for more than a month.   This past week, Education officials launched a gradual reopening of 119 schools in the San Juan and Mayaguez regions.  However, a return to any sense of normalcy is an unrealistic expectation.  At least 70% of the 1,100 schools in the system are too badly damaged to reopen.   In addition, an estimated 190 schools are being used as community centers, shelters, and relief centers.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the island does not have adequate school based clinicians to address the traumatic needs of students.  Puerto Rico has less than 50 licensed school psychologists on staff.  This represents a 0.05% of the actual number that should be providing services according to Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Law 170 of August 12 2000 .  This law formally established the position of school psychologist and requires a minimum of 5 school psychologists for each of the 7 educational regions.  Presently, there is discussion on a new bill that would require 10 school psychologists for each educational region.

In the meantime, educators must find ways to create a safe-haven and a support system for students who are returning to school.  Many students will be dealing with feelings of anxiety, depression, and the trauma of things experienced during the storm.  Students have experienced loss of home and personal belongings, hunger, and abandonment from family members moving to the mainland.

While there is no easy solution to this complex problem, here are five key considerations for teachers, administrators, and support staff:

  • Creating a safe and nurturing environment should be the number one priority. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network  indicates that “danger and safety are core concerns in the life of children.”   Children on the island have been deeply impacted by  recent events.  They have witnessed tragedy and despair and now need a safe place to share their feelings.  Making sure that they feel safe and protected in their schools and classrooms should be the primary concern.
  • Curriculum takes a back seat.  Children who are hungry, feel insecure, and have experienced trauma cannot focus on learning.   Administrators and educational leaders should give teachers the flexibility to modify instructional objectives and pacing guides to make room for social-emotional goals and activities.  A great resource is the Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators which provides suggestions on how to support children experiencing trauma in the classroom.
  • A comprehensive therapeutic support system should be in place for the long haul.  Social workers, school psychologists, administrators, teachers, and parents must come together as a united front to determine the best approach for their school community and specifically, for individual students.  This support system must be in a place for an indefinite amount of time and will require the financial support of the Department of Education.  Critical vacancies must be filled.  Alternate methods of providing therapeutic interventions should be explored including partnering with private and nonprofit agencies.
  • The social-emotional needs of teachers must be addressed.  Teachers cannot offer support and nurture students if they are also dealing with trauma.   Many teachers are experiencing feelings of loss, displacement, and uncertainty as they return to the classroom.   In their book Fostering Resilient Learners Kristin Souers and Pete Hall stress the importance of self-care.  They argue that, “It’s crucial… that teachers not brush aside self-care as an unnecessary luxury; on the contrary, taking care of ourselves is what enables us to take care of our students.”   Each school should strive to create an environment that recognizes these needs and puts the health and wellness of teachers and students at the center of a recovery plan.
  • Finally, and most importantly,  we need to instill feelings of hope for the future.  Renowned child trauma expert, Bruce Perry writes that “Resilience cannot exist without hope. It is the capacity to be hopeful that carries us through challenges, disappointments, loss, and traumatic stress.”   Teachers and support staff can provide healthy relationships for students built on trust and honesty.  These can in turn serve as a mechanism to instill hope in the midst of adversity and help heal the school community.

Creating a Positive Classroom Climate for the School Year: 5 Key Reflections for Teachers and Administrators

The start of a new school year always brings the hope of new beginnings and infinite opportunities for learning.  While each teacher and administrator might have a different perspective of what the first days of school entail, most educators can agree that these first days and weeks are crucial to setting the tone for the school year.

Early on in my career as a Language Arts and English as a Second Language teacher, I spent the summer worrying and fretting over bulletin boards, colorful signs, and seating arrangements for my classroom.  As an elementary school principal, I was primarily concerned with the cleanliness of the building and the landscaping of the school.  During my tenure as superintendent of a state-wide system, my summer was consumed by school renovation and construction projects for 20 district facilities.  These efforts all focused on the infrastructure and environmental aspects of education.   Inarguably, these are all important pieces to consider.  However, beyond the classroom and building walls, teachers and administrators must reflect on the day to day practices that ultimately have a long-lasting effect on the memories that students have of their teacher, their classroom, and their school.

In preparation for the ringing of the school bell, here are 5 reflective questions on classroom climate to consider:

Does my classroom create a safe and nurturing environment that makes students feel they belong?

Take the time to know your students, ask questions to former teachers about their social and emotional needs, and create a classroom environment that celebrates their differences and makes them feel welcome from day one.

Try this simple exercise of sitting at a student desk.  Does the physical setup and overall environment make you feel safe and welcome?  What feelings does your classroom trigger?  What memories of your own learning come to mind?

Do I acknowledge every student’s presence several times throughout the day?

Students will respond to a teacher who knows their name and can pronounce it correctly.  This is particularly true of English language learners and new arrivals.  Knowing a student’s name and pronouncing it correctly shows a student that his/her teacher respects them as an individual and cares. This marks a critical step in helping students establish a sense of belonging.

Do I model, teach, and practice with students the daily schedules, routines, transitions, and behavior expectations throughout the day?

Practicing and modeling schedules and routines should take place throughout the day and for the entire school year.  Revisit your routines and expectations by having a student read aloud the social contract.  Take the time to explain the transitions to lunch and recess and then have a student model for his/her peers.  Present instructions to complete a task or activity in a step-by-step manner, preferably accompanied by a visual representation or demonstration of what is expected.

Take the time to create a learning community before rushing into content.  It will pay off!

Do I teach, model, and practice social skills such as greetings, conflict resolution, sharing, kindness, and tolerance during scheduled time and at teachable moments during the day?

Make sure that your actions and words are clearly aligned with the behavioral expectations you have shared with students.  Promote a climate of sharing resources, exhibiting kindness, and practicing tolerance for all.  Help students resolve conflict with peers by providing sentence starters and words that enrich their social skills.  In many cases, you are the best model that students have for these core values.

Do I provide my students with meaningful opportunities to contribute to the well-being of their peers their classroom, and the school community?

Students should have positive and respectful relationships with each other, their teachers and the school community.   Incorporate an awareness of volunteering as a natural part of student learning. Help students understand that volunteering is the responsibility of citizens.  Contributions made by volunteers represent positive social action for the good of the community, which will impact the well-being of their family, friends, and peers.  Ask students for ideas of local causes that they would like to support. How can our class help?

Finally, make sure you take the time to have fun with your students and remind yourself every day that YOU are making a difference in students’ lives!

Have a great school year!

 

 

Kissing a cow and other necessary leadership attributes…

100_4276From August 2007 to August 2010, I served as principal of Windham Center School in Windham, Connecticut.  At the time, Windham Center School served approximately 300+ students, including a K-4 New Arrivals Program designed for language enrichment for English Language Learners (ELLs).  One of the challenges our team faced was getting students to become readers while showing growth on statewide assessments. The Literacy Team and I met weekly to pour over data, identify student needs, and monitor the school literacy goals.  We all felt we had to create a sense of excitement and commitment around literacy and make it a school-wide effort. Several ideas surfaced such as hosting book fairs, awarding prizes for reading milestones, and setting up reading buddies. However, the idea that seemed to excite folks the most was of having the principal kiss a cow to celebrate reaching a schoolwide reading goal.  I accepted the challenge with a little trepidation as I was not clear on how the actual kissing would take place.  Pretty soon I found myself immersed in the uncontrollable excitement and energy of elementary students who could not believe that Dr. Torres was going to kiss a cow. I had daily interactions with students who would eagerly show me their books during recess, lunch, or at the bus stop.  They wanted to make sure that I knew that they were committed to the reading goal.  Teachers seemed equally excited to promote the initiative and join in the reading with their students.  A chart was created and posted next to the main office with the school goal: Windham Center School will read 1,000 books by the end of the school year.

Thinking about this experience has made me reflect on my individual leadership attributes.  One of the most common questions asked during an interview is:  What unique attributes can you bring into this organization and position? While we all have our individual list of attributes that we might revisit from time to time, I have made a short list of those attributes I feel helped me problem-solve through this difficult instructional issue, generate a sense of momentum around a common vision, and ultimately help the Windham Center community reach our reading milestone.

Here are 5 key leadership attributes:

Be a good listener:  Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely.” A skilled leader takes the time to really listen to other people within the organization who might have a different perspective or opinion. In my case, I relied on the literacy experts at the school.  Although I am an English as a Second Language teacher by trade, I am by no means a literacy expert.  I recognized early on that I had to take the time to listen to those who really knew more about literacy than I did.  Listening to the teachers and then thinking about how we could collaboratively develop an action plan was key.

Be an active learner:   Always seek new knowledge and embark on this exercise with humility recognizing that there is no such thing as a heroic and single leader. As John Maxwell says: “One is too small a number to achieve greatness”. I knew that I could not singlehandedly solve the reading conundrum. However, as a leader I acknowledged that my behavior and willingness to learn alongside the team could serve as the catalyst for change to take place and the team to rally around the common goal. Our team read research articles and professional books on literacy and we discussed these together. We sought to develop a common understanding of the fundamentals of reading and to learn from each other’s perspectives.

Set a vision for the team:  A list of the greatest political figures and visionaries will most certainly include Winston Churchill. Churchill’s vision was simple although one could argue that it was highly ambitious.  His vision for the Allies and Great Britain was total victory. There was no other option.  Churchill was a master at defining the war conflict and the combatants on his own terms.

As a leader, I have strived to understand the issue at hand and frame it in terms that connect with the members of the school community. By taking the time to listen and learn from the team, I was now able to articulate the school’s challenge and set a vision for the remainder of the school year. Where did we see our students in 6 months? At the end of the school year?  Our vision was to have a school committed to literacy and avid young readers who thrived with our instructional program.  Anything less was not an option.

Delegate among your team: I love Becky Brodin’s definition of what leadership is not: “Leadership is not wielding authority- it is empowering people”. Recognize the skills and talents of those working alongside you and build capacity from within. You are not the only one responsible for the execution of the plan. At Windham Center School, each team was responsible for drafting a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely) goal and routinely updating the school-wide data team on its progress.  Everyone had a clear role in the process and was committed to the overall vision of literacy for all of our K-4 students. Teachers were empowered to present data, challenge instructional practices, and offer recommendations.

Be the most vocal cheerleader on the team:

Your ability as a leader to be vocal, energized, and visible cannot be underestimated. You can work tirelessly to draft a vision and a plan, but ultimately, being the voice of that vision and making it come to life is what will resonate with your team. You must communicate the vision and seek it relentlessly.  Your team needs to see you taking the lead and doing what is necessary (in this case, kissing a cow!) to achieve the goal. No one wants to see a downtrodden, disheartened, and unmotivated leader at the helm. For me, this was the most significant learning.

During the summer of 2010, Windham Center School exceeded its goal of reading 1,000 books. Our collective efforts also led the school to meeting the annual proficiency goals in reading and math on the statewide assessments.  There is no doubt in my mind that kissing the cow was well worth it!

Op-Ed: Strategic Plan for The Connecticut Technical High School System

 

 

For the past four years, I have lead the Connecticut Technical High School System and had the privilege to serve some of the most talented and motivated students in the state.  But on May 1st, I made the difficult decision to leave the system, a decision that leaves me both sad and frustrated.     The review that lead to my decision to leave the Connecticut Technical High School System has been narrowly focused, and did not allow for public input from me or the CTHSS Board.   As a professional, I respect the process.

But, I want to make one point clear.   Every decision I made and every plan implemented throughout my tenure in the school system was made in open consultation with the CTHSS Board, and sought to meet the board’s charge of positioning the system as a leading force in career and technical education.  I am very proud of the work we did together.

When I came to the system in 2010, Connecticut’s technical schools were still viewed as the alternative for students who had no college aspirations.  As a teacher and an administrator who worked on the front lines, I understood those assumptions about the students, the schools, and the staff were unfair.   The dual curriculum at the technical high school system coupled with the unique demands of the career programs, requires a highly motivated student with an interest and an aptitude for technical education.   The fact is, more than 50 percent of the CTHSS graduates pursue post-secondary education.

In 2014, the CTHSS Board approved an ambitious strategic plan “Tomorrow’s Framework” centered on providing world-class career technical and academic education in preparation for careers in business and industry (CTHSS Foundational Imperative, 1).  At the very core of the plan was the need to partner with business and industry to provide educational production work, work-based learning, and future job placement for our students (CTHSS Strategic Goal, 1).  The CTHSS Board and I understood that to respond to the emerging needs of business in Connecticut, we needed to be visible and active partners.  This also necessitated creating more exposure for the district so that it was recognized state-wide, nationally, and internationally for its high-quality and innovative programs along with its outstanding graduates (CTHSS Foundational Imperative, 14).   To implement our plan, we also needed to raise awareness of new opportunities in our schools and to bring in more students to increase diversity within the applicant pool.

For four years, my leadership team worked tirelessly with the CTHSS Board to promote the system, our students, and above all establish new partnerships that would benefit our graduates.   Today, graduation rates for CTHSS students are at an all-time high of 97.4 percent, nearly ten points higher than the state average.   Membership in trade advisory committees has increased by 18 percent.  Student production work increased by 5 percent state-wide.  The effect of the CTHSS is undeniable as the system provides the overwhelming majority – 69 percent – of the workforce apprentices across the state.  These indicators of achievement point to the Board’s success in implementing a transformative and visionary plan for the system.

Throughout this process, we consistently presented annual reports to the State Board of Education, the CTHSS Board, members of the General Assembly, and stakeholders across the state.   These reports and presentations are a matter of public record.  Each report references the four strategic plan goals and the progress made, including Goal 3.2 “Present the CTHSS as the pipeline for workforce development in the state”.  A sub-set of this goal is to “establish a public relations and marketing campaign highlighting CTHSS accomplishments and core mission” and “use social media as a platform to establish communication with business/industry as a forum to expand partnerships with job services”.   Specific references to these strategic plan goals and the indicators of achievement is instrumental in any discussion on the system’s success.

Now more than ever, our technical high school students are an integral part of the state’s economic future.  As I move on, it is my greatest hope that the strategic plan that has brought more business partners, visibility, and opportunities to the system continues to be the guiding force for years to come.

This Op-Ed was published by Identidad Latina on June 8th, 2017.

http://identidadlatina.com/