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News > AES News > An Interview with Dr. Andrew Torris, AES Director

An Interview with Dr. Andrew Torris, AES Director

28 Feb 2022
AES News
Dr. Torris in his office
Dr. Torris in his office

In conversation with Dr. Andy Torris, AES Director by Zora (Grade 12)

Good morning Dr. Torris. Thank you again for agreeing to do this interview. These interview questions surround your impact on AES and how you have transitioned into your leadership role here.

First, we wanted to ask what it was like to transition to a new country and your role as a leader at AES while being in lockdown?

I have been transitioning into new countries for twenty years. I started my career in international education in Saudi Arabia back in 2001. And that was an exciting experience because that was just before the Twin Towers attacks on 9/11. My transition to that country during that very scary time in our history was very tumultuous. I thought I would never experience anything that stressful again. I transferred from Saudi Arabia into mainland China from there I moved to Dubai. These experiences were positive and relatively calm as moving can be with a family, dogs, a cat, two kids, and everything else that goes along with it.

All of the things around this pandemic started around January of 2020. I had left my school at that time and home in China to travel to the US and could never return. learned during this time that I would be coming to Delhi, it was a difficult transition because we had left all our stuff in our apartment, and our animals were still in Shenzhen at the time. We had to navigate all of that from the United States into Mainland China. Thank goodness for the lovely people who took care of us. 

I started talking with the people at AES on Zoom calls right at the beginning of May, the year before, that year I came in May 2020. Lots of online meetings. I met parents and the parent community and the outgoing Director of the school. I started working with people and trying to get to know them as best as possible and in the worst of circumstances. Everyone was scared and unsure what the world was going to be like on the other side. And I took it upon myself to be as transparent as possible, and communicate frequently. I did this not in large blocks of text, not long videos, but gave people little snippets of information regularly. I did that a couple of times a week throughout June and July until the first day of online school in August. 

My family and I were stuck in Oregon waiting for our Visas to get processed. We were checking websites, making phone calls, calling the Consulate in San Francisco over and over again. Then finally, it just happened one day, and five days later, we were on a plane and on our way to Delhi. And we arrived and we went to our house for two weeks and stayed in isolation. The thing about AES that I think everybody needs to realize and I am assuming all the alumni that are interested in how things are going here in Delhi. They will remember the care and community this school has for each other. The first glimpse I saw was a bunch of people who barely knew me, taking care of me from a distance, were delivering food to my doorstep, making sure that all of our, you know, health and wellbeing was taken care of, even though they really couldn't interact with us very much. The school has done that for our teaching community and I hope that people like yourself who moved in new to the community at least had an opportunity to connect with people.

Some way, shape, or form, your teachers in their classrooms, other parents in the community, or PSA did a lot of work to outreach the parent community. The missions and the NGOs in town were taking care of themselves but at the same time checking on us as well. It is a beautiful partnership we have with the school, and for me, it just reinforced the fact that we need to make sure that we are supporting each other. It could be one-on-one support or group support and acting as if the things that I do profoundly impact all the people around me. If I need to wear a mask, I will do so because it's good for you and me. I will follow the rules inside the school because it is good for you and me. And if we all do that, then the school opens up, we get to use the swimming pools, the gymnasiums, the tacks, the fields, and everything else. And that is what this is all about. I was just like, let us make that happen, let's do it. Lean into it. 

 

And I guess coming into that, and you receiving that support and having to give that support, was that a significant change from the last place you were at coming here to AES?

It needed to be more prominent here because of the circumstance. The last school I opened up was a brand new school. There was no school when I arrived. I was a founding school head there. And so that's just detail work and lots of minor niggling issues all over the place you had to deal with. But here, it's around presence. It's around messaging and making sure that people know what the school's doing, being as transparent and full of energy and life as possible. Helping people understand that if I have hope, if I have joy, if I have that idea of what the pursuit of excellence looks like at AES online for a while, maybe we can get that message across to everybody else.

 

Right, and then with you having that presence online and talking to those parents, was it easy to translate that back once we started coming back into school?

Well, I don't know if we're quite there yet. We've got a ways to go. I dream of the day when we have rooms full of people who show up and, you know, want to participate and engage with school leadership, teachers, and students. And we're not there yet. We have had some small gatherings in the fall. The PSAs got together a few times over the first several months of the school year, but you know, maybe moving in March, I understand some huge events are coming up here at AES. Everyone is excited about the Holi event coming up next month. Hoping that we can get back to that experience which I am sure you've heard about as much as I have but never have seen. We have seen the photos, though, haven't we? Have we not? So I think that the thing we would have an opportunity to do. 

How has the organization of AES health safety evolved from the first wave of the pandemic to now? 

Our health team at AES is fantastic. They've been very proactive in staying ahead of health information, working with the CDC, World Health Organization information, and the local government guidelines here in India. It isn't very easy. As we have gone through these various waves that come with the pandemic, we've come to realize the timings transmissibility of this virus when people are contagious and not contagious. We've just been more proactive and get ahead of it in much better ways. There's so much advent of some amazing medical technologies, also. Home tests didn't exist initially, and vaccines were a dream back when this started. When we opened up in hybrid in October, November of last year, the cases were going up; we didn't have any home testing, we didn't have any vaccines. The only technology we had at our fingertips was a mask. Now we understand what transmission might look like how it happens a little bit better; the science has gotten better with our testing. We have these amazing home test we're able to do that gives us an idea of who's COVID positive and who's not. That way, we know who is sick and not feeling that bad, staying home for a few days and keeping us all healthy.

 

What was it like to support your faculty and the teachers? You also talked about this a little bit earlier, seeing the faculty's shift and bond growth.

As a new director, getting to know your faculty is like what you want to do right away and I did my best to open the door to the office to meet as many people as possible. So I just set up an hour, half an hour meeting with as many people and said, "come in, take some time, here's my Calendly link." Probably about three-quarters of the faculty took me up on that offer. They came in and told me their story. I got to know them as people, and that, over time, builds trust and helps me recognize people in a face-to-face environment. As we walk around school now, you'll notice that all the adults and staff have name tags. We did that because everyone's behind a mask and you can still see who people are. I got tired of walking by so many of our gardeners, support staff, and people who take care of the facilities and do the hard work around here and do not know their names. I'd say good morning over and over again, I'd ask their names, they'd tell me, and a few days later, I'd be like, what's your name again and they'd be patient with me. It just provided a good connection with people. The other interesting thing about my job is that I interview every new teacher we hire. Every employee that comes on board, I meet with them for a few minutes and I get to know them, their story, family life, where they're from what they're doing. So I spend a good portion of my work life throughout October until June talking to individuals repeatedly, finding out who they are and what they're about. So when they come here, I already know their story. So as we turn over faculty, people leave, people come, people go, and as oI meet those folks, I get to know who they are. And over time, I get to know everybody.

 

In terms of you moving forward and having a vision for AES and the post-pandemic that we hope will come soon, we never really know. Do you have any goals or things you want to see as you move forward? 

Yeah, I do, I do. I've very excited about the renewal of our campus. We have a facility plan that we're putting in place. We've been working with the Flansberg Architects out of the United States, a world-renowned and award-winning architecture firm helping us renew and further develop this campus. So facility renewal is going to be a big piece of that. I'm looking forward to increasing access to world languages in the short term, particularly in our elementary school, where language learning is key. So as our students rise up through our school, their access to fluency in another language, a second or third language, in some cases is a possibility. I'm so excited about the work that we're doing with our college and university counseling team. We've been reviewing that program and hoping to help our students see the possibilities in front of them. You receive an excellent education at AES, specializing in small classes and caring teachers. We want that to translate into seeing the opportunities in front of you. The different universities and resources that you have. And I think our alumni association is a really good resource for that. These experienced individuals found success in their lives after they left AES. I hope they can begin that back to us and help share their successes along the way. Finally, I hope that our diversity of opportunities increases as our enrollment increases. Our activities, athletics, travel opportunities, and engagement in this amazing country of India return to that. I can see the arts and service become part of that vibrant life here again. We had that right in front of us all the time. That gives all of us an opportunity to be a part of this amazing AES community. 

 

How did you prioritize support for the teachers and families as we went online?

We have a very supportive Board of Governors that gave our teachers a lot of space and grace to help them understand that they'd be supported and taken care of throughout the pandemic. The Board of Governors decided that they would not cut any positions even though our enrollment dropped significantly. That gave our teachers a significant amount of comfort in knowing that they had that support. And it made my job as a new director coming in a lot easier because I didn't have to navigate that unpleasantness along the way. Beyond that, we were very clear about the protocol and safety measures we were putting in place inside our classrooms. It helped assure the teachers that their safety was as important as the children's safety. Thankfully, it worked out well. Everybody in large parts has been healthy, our teachers were well taken care of and I the thing that teachers at AES would tell you is we were clear and definitive about our decisions. We provided a clear boundary around our expectations of them moving forward. We stood by our decisions because we knew that they were safe. They were based on science and ensured that people understood everything would be okay. We did believe in that. If you don't feel comfortable, raise your hand and let us know to provide you with some extra support. That might be personal support, one-on-one with our health team. That might be, "I don't feel comfortable working right now, and I'd like to take some time off," and we allowed people to do that during the pandemic and step away for a little while. Other people just needed the assurances of us continuing with their professional support and professional growth. So we pulled people together actually during the pandemic and made forward plans because looking forward into the future made people feel better about the present. They felt suddenly I'm not going to be stuck in this forever, which is not a forever thing. The leadership and the Board and our community want us to look forward to the future, so we did.

 

You touched on this with Holi happening in March. With everyone being more active on campus with the events and activities under process, what is another tradition and/or event that you're also looking forward to seeing?

High school graduation! That's what I'm looking forward to. For many personal reasons, I have a senior this year and another one graduating, but the thing is, my dad was my high school principal. My dad was a high school principal forever. So I always joked around that I've been going to high school graduations since I was born because my mother would take my siblings and me to high graduations. We were little, tiny people and we would sit there every spring, every May of every year, of my entire life. I have been involved with high school graduations with a few years off here and there. But when I got here, I was so excited because finally, I got to go back to the high school graduation. I'm the guy that's up on the stage watching everybody walk by or handing diplomas out sometimes, and I'm choking back tears because it's just so awesome. Families are so proud. It's the one-time parents get to stare at their kid as long as they want and not get embarrassed by it. It's an emotional experience. It's a celebration of community. So I can't wait to have our high school graduation and see what it's like here. It's going to be amazing.

 

You talked about how you have traveled to so many different places and been traveling overseas even amid the attacks of 9/11 and now being in a pandemic. How do you manage to keep the morale high through your organization or your presence at school during a crisis?

I don't know, you know? You have to be visible and accessible to people and tell them and provide the assurances and details necessary for their survival and safety is our utmost concern. Provide them the ability to extricate themselves if they need to. Most teachers and most educators, in particular, have the innate sense and need to make sure their students are safe. Beyond their children and their own family certainly, so they take the wellbeing of their students quite seriously. It's a rare, very rare occasion in schools where there's a lot of stress, a lot of danger, a lot of insecurity and you'll see all the people leave. Schools don't do that. They see themselves as vital personnel in case of an emergency. I'm always amazed at how people move through that process. Yes, they're scared, yes they voice their concerns, you got every day when asked to do their job they show up because they know these children who are so important to them will show up too. That's why schools are so vital to the emergency management process, if you will, in a community and that's true around the world, in international schools, in public schools, national schools, every country that I've ever been in that's always been the key. 

 

And tying it all together in what has happened these past two years are the lessons you've taken away as a leader, educator, and individual you would want to share with everyone else?

Yeah, well, never stop learning. Be a voracious reader and consume as much media and information as possible. Make sure the stuff you are consuming has basis and facts, so choose carefully. Number two, don't lose your sense of humor. Even in the worst of times, a laugh will bring down the tension a little bit and get people to find their guard. Remain as empathetic as possible, flex your empathy muscles. It's a skill and a personality attribute all at the same time. So build up your empathy and keep it strong. People will be in times of stress a little unreasonable, and that's okay because that's a human stress response. But I think that if can engage within and from a place of empathy that brings their level of stress down. You calmly move people through those times without losing them.

So that's been one of the biggest things you've learned or been able to grow in coming from the US to here?

Yes, absolutely. I know I was young too when I left the United States. I was looking at a picture of myself twenty years ago. I was like, "my goodness. I look like I was in high school." But that's the thing about these international schools and the people who work there. There's a certain open-mindedness of the people who work at these places. You've had to step away from your homes, the familiar surroundings and your everyday routines, and all the creature comforts that are whatever you have back in the United States. 

I will also say that one of my first responses to working at an international school is that this is a space. I said to my wife Amanda; this is a space where I can do my work to be an educator. I don't have to be a bureaucrat and a policy minder. I can talk about teaching and learning and what will make kids better people when they leave us for their next adventure. That was opening because I never felt like that was one hundred percent my job in the United States, a sad commentary on public schools where I was working. It may not be true everywhere. But I love working with these schools because people are just so intent on making sure students get a great experience. 

 

This has been great, Dr. Torris. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this again.

Of course! My pleasure always.

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