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!

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: Continue reading

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.