As a high schooler, Josť Torres had a "pretty nice Afro."
He likes listening to Latin and rock music. His favorite book is "The Fifth Disciple" by Peter Senge. And his favorite TV show is "The Walking Dead."
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The Elgin Area School District U-46 superintendent shared insights into his personal and professional lives Wednesday at an Elgin Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Elgin Community College.
Torres was the last speaker for the year in the chamber's "CEO Unplugged: A Personal Look at the Leader" series.
He reflected on his leadership style, challenges, and experience managing the second largest school district in Illinois with more than 40,000 students, a $400 million budget and 4,000 employees.
"It really is a little bit like a minister," said Torres about his role as superintendent. "You are trying to inspire people who have their own ideas of how to run their own lives."
Torres said he had many mentors over the years who helped him develop his leadership skills. He added that when he needs advice, he prays and consults with other superintendents of large school districts.
Torres said as with any business, a leader of a school district is in a fishbowl and has to be able to build connections with students and staff.
"You become very intentional about what you do," Torres said, adding that he takes time each day to be visible in the schools and to engage employees whether it's secretaries, custodians or teachers.
"I'm very approachable," he said.
Torres said some employees relate with him because of his weekly email messages distributed to the entire district.
Torres, who joined the district in 2008, said one of the most challenging experiences he faced on the job was when U-46 was poised to lay off more than 1,000 employees in March 2009.
"I was at the Elgin High School auditorium with every seat filled," he said.
Emotions ran high as students and staff pleaded for the teachers about to be fired, and school board members were in tears, he recalled.
The district eventually ended up laying off 400 teachers.
"That's been the toughest part. But how do you put the system back together again," he said.
Torres said the challenges for students is to find the motivation to learn.
"We are in a very old model of education," Torres said, adding that students are connected electronically until they set foot onto the school parking lot and have to put away their smartphones and other devices. "They are not going to learn if they are not engaged, and that's really the challenging part."