Boldly Leading Through Crisis: Principal Sandi Massey's leadership story of rebuilding after a tornado devastation and leading through a global pandemic.
Written by Rachel Chewakin
This story highlights a conversation moderated by PIC team member Catherine Worth, and highlights the unique role principals play during times of crisis.
From the moment she began kindergarten, Sandi Massey knew that she aspired to be a lifelong educator. After serving as a classroom teacher for several years, she transitioned into elementary administration where she served as an Assistant Principal. Looking back on her first year in the role, Massey said, “I thought of the first time I ran a marathon and felt addicted to running because it was such an exciting feeling. Overcoming the obstacles of that first year reminded me that this was what I was supposed to be doing.”
Initially conflicted by the opportunity to move to secondary administration with only an elementary education background, Sandi Massey now proudly serves as the Principal of Thomas Jefferson High School (TJ High School) in Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD).
Massey candidly acknowledged, “Being asked to take a high school position initially threw me off, but now I am so glad that someone saw the leadership capability and vitality in me that I didn’t even realize was there. I use that story to remind others that sometimes the toughest job you can imagine is what can take you to the next level.”
From serving as an elementary kindergarten teacher to leading a large high school campus for 7 years, Massey’s leadership journey has shown her ability to lead to and through times of crisis.
TJ High School Devastated by Tornado
In October 2019, TJ High School, along with two other schools in Dallas ISD, were closed due to the devastating tornado that hit the North Texas area. Once Massey realized the extent of the damage on campus, life for TJ students and staff would never be the same. She shared, “Although it was overwhelming to lose TJ, I didn’t have a moment to think about it. We immediately went into planning and strategizing.”
Rather than focusing on physical ruins of the school, she boldly crafted a new plan to support her team through professional development sessions. During these sessions, they would brainstorm and develop tangible, concrete solutions to solve the many new challenges they were going through—everything from student drop-off to new advisory periods. In doing so, she leaned heavily into the Design Thinking approach from her learnings in the PIC program.
“In one of my very first PIC sessions,[our PIC design trainer] shared an image of a person in a forest with a flashlight. The expression emphasized that when you’re in the design thinking process you can only see so far, but that’s the whole point of design because you can’t immediately see the big picture in the beginning,” Massey explained.
She went on to say, “That’s how it felt with TJ. I wanted my staff to see that, while it felt like we were in the dark, we could still see that little bit of light. And as long as we continued to put one foot in front of the other, we would eventually come to a place where the struggle would end.” Massey revisited this image with her team several times throughout TJ’s recovery as a challenge to let go of any victim mindset, and as a reminder that there was nothing they couldn’t conquer, and that it was time to press forward together as a family.”
Without letting the realities of the tornado overtake her confidence or that of her staff, she emphasized, “I felt like I was placed at TJ for a time such as this. That I was the person who could navigate them through this storm. I never questioned if I had the ability to do it. I knew I had the support from the district and programs like PIC, and that I could use what I’ve learned throughout my journey to teach myself how to navigate this.”
COVID-19 disrupts learning and schools pivot to at-home learning
Six months into rebuilding TJ High School, the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Texas, requiring drastic shifts for schools, including a pivot to at-home learning. For Sandi Massey and the TJ community, this news came as bittersweet. “The momentum of overcoming the tornado mattered. We knew we were going to catch up, and were proud of our progress.” Yet, faced with this new challenge, TJ knew they were more prepared than most to navigate the unknown—for students and staff, this had become a familiar exercise. “Our experience with the tornado gave us a lot of resilience and thick skin. Everybody [TJ students and staff] has seemed to handle this new challenge] with pride. It didn’t take us long at all to say, ‘okay, here’s what we need to do,’ and get right back into the swing of things.”
Though TJ High School staff were confident in their abilities to re-invent digital learning, it was hard to ignore the tremendous impacts that Covid-19 had on so many of their students outside of school. “The hardest part for our students has been the loss of jobs. It’s really hard to care about what is going in your lessons, if you’re worried about how you’re going to feed your family that week,” Massey shared.
Yet, undeterred by the new responsibilities, seniors at TJ High School are still attending their senior meetings, even if it means joining while on break from their jobs, many still donning their work uniforms. Above all, Massey agreed that now, more than ever, we must consider student realities and perspectives into how we re-invent school.
Focusing on lessons learned and staying grounded
Looking forward to what will be true for students next year also offers an opportunity for school leaders to reflect on what they want to be true for themselves. Massey agreed and remains clear on how she has stayed grounded and focused.
“The ability to lean on peer principals in the PIC program for emotional support and strength has been tremendous,” she said. “PIC has helped us identify that self-care is a priority in our life. I don’t think I would have been able to lead during the tornado and during COVID-19 if I didn’t feel healthy myself - mentally and emotionally.”
In addition to reflecting on her own leadership resiliency, Massey shared a few words of wisdom for other school leaders who are navigating unforeseen obstacles, “Do not wait until you go through a crisis to prepare for a crisis. Grow yourself and teach yourself. Find opportunities like PIC to invest in your own development, and you are going to be better prepared for leading in any crisis. We face them every day, big or small, and that’s simply the way it is. Plan now for what you don’t know is coming.”
It is clear Massey’s unwavering and deep commitment to serving her students and their families rests in her confidence to lead boldly, to leap when there is no clear direction, and to lift up others to do the same.
Principal Sandi Massey is a Principal Impact Collaborative 2018 Cohort participant.