Profile: Lillian Torrez

Calling on Her Counseling Skills

Profile - Lillian TorrezAs a 1st grader in the Albuquerque Public Schools, Lillian Torrez spoke no English. Though a native New Mexican, she had been living with her Spanish-speaking grandmother about 100 miles north of the Mexican border and had yet to learn her birth country’s tongue.

Torrez faced countless difficulties throughout childhood as her family struggled to get by, yet she managed to overcome hardship and pave the way for a fruitful career in education that has spanned three decades. Twenty-five of those years were spent as a teacher, counselor and administrator in Albuquerque. Last fall, she moved into the top post in Taos, N.M.

No stranger to personal challenges, Torrez didn’t back down when, during her second day in her new position, she discovered the district faced a $1 million deficit, mismanagement of the special education department and a teaching staff overwhelmed by the state’s standardized testing mandates.

Torrez dug in to the task, launching an ambitious five-year strategic plan to get the 3,200-student district back on track. “I have raised expectations for myself and every employee in the district,” she says. “I model high expectations with my work ethic, my integrity and by motivating staff to raise morale.”

When faced with difficult professional decisions, Torrez, 59, often returns to her roots as a school counselor. She identified deeply with Albuquerque students who came to her with the same issues she had struggled with as an adolescent raised in poverty. “I just think about what is best for the students and it’s amazing how that helps me to find solutions,” she says. “It’s how I ground myself so that I can move forward, which is why I’m here.”

Sandra Houston, director of curriculum and instruction in Questa, N.M., saw firsthand Torrez’s dedication to students when the two worked together in Cuba, N.M., where Torrez served as assistant superintendent in 2012-13. “She has that capacity and charisma to inspire her staff to want the best for the students. When it comes right down to it, her strength is in serving the stakeholders and loving the children as if each and every family were part of her own,” Houston says.

Described as a tireless “energizer bunny” by her colleagues, Torrez already has built relationships with nearly 40 community organizations in Taos during her nine months at the helm of the city’s schools. She feels grateful to be able to depend on the larger community as she earns the trust of staff, examines instructional practices and aligns the curriculum with the Common Core.

One of the 28 members of the inaugural cohort of AASA’s National Superintendent Certification program, Torrez was named the Administrator of the Year by the New Mexico National Board Certified Teacher Network in January 2014. “I think of myself as a conduit to help students, parents, teachers, staff and community members to flourish and continue to make a difference in all of their lives,” she says.

Earlier in her career, Torrez spent a decade as dean of students for Saint Pius X High School in Albuquerque, a source of insights from the nonpublic sector.

Of all her professional experiences, Torrez calls the superintendency the most difficult position she’s held. “But it’s also the most self-actualizing experience a person can have,” she adds. “The difference that you can make for children is huge.”

Kristin Hubing is editorial associate at School Administrator magazine. E-mail: khubing@aasa.org

 

BIO STATS: Lillian Torrez

Currently: superintendent, Taos, N.M.

Previously: superintendent, Questa, N.M.

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: My Aspiring Superintendent Program director, Hugh Prather, believed in me, supported me and mentored me to work toward excellence as a superintendent.

Best professional day: At the elementary school observing and conversing with teachers regarding instruction and what they thought would improve their students’ achievement levels. They were very excited to speak about their ideas.

Books at bedside: Mindset by Carol Dweck and Driven by Data by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo

Biggest blooper: I completely forgot to meet a top Taos Pueblo official for lunch to discuss concerns about our Native American students. He waited at the restaurant for an hour and had called my cell several times. I was in such an intense meeting, I didn’t think to check my phone.

Why I’m an AASA member: I want to be up-to-date on best practices and to network with my colleagues. I enjoy the AASA annual conference, the magazine and the support offered by AASA that I’ve used over the last few years.