Joplin Schools superintendent discusses leadership, teamwork after tornado

Feb 25, 2014

The new Joplin High School
Credit ICSC

C.J. Huff received a text message from his father after he completed an interview on Fox News about how Joplin was planning on moving forward after the tornado.

"Saw you on Fox. So proud of you. Now show them what you can really do."

The text was encouraging, as Huff’s father knew his son would have a plan. Three years later, Huff laughed in front of an audience of educators, parents and students as he explained to them he didn’t have a plan.

Huff grew up on a farm in Southeast Kansas for the first 26 years of his life. He learned early on not to trust the weather and to be ready to improvise when the time came.

“We always had a plan A, plan B and a plan C," Huff said. "We always fought the weather. You just never knew when you woke up in the morning what you would be doing by the end of the day-whether a piece of equipment breaks or some weather comes in unexpectedly.”

He had previous experience with tornadoes, but nothing could have prepared him for what would hit Joplin in May of 2011.

At $2.8 billion in damages, the Joplin tornado became the most costly tornado in U.S. history. It destroyed a third of the city, damaged or destroyed nine schools, and left more than 4,000 students with nowhere to go.

The first thing Huff did after the tornado was strip all his employees of their job titles. He analyzed their strengths and weaknesses and created new job descriptions based on the overall strength of each team member. With Huff at the lead, the team moved forward as a cohesive unit instead of as individual faculty and administration.

Last week, the Columbia Council of PTAs invited Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff to speak at Rock Bridge High School about teamwork and leadership. He is contacted by various organizations about once a month to speak about his unique experience.

The 2013 Superintendent of the Year made the audience laugh, cry and evaluate the priorities their school currently maintains. He presented a slideshow that included pictures and videos of the devastation that the tornado left behind. He moved from topic to topic within the tragedy, talking calmly about the challenges that he and his community had to overcome.

Then he stopped and took a deep breath.

He tried not to, but eventually Huff began crying as he talked about the children who were injured during the storm. He talked to the audience about making sure their resources put students in the spotlight and allow them to receive proper and necessary care. Then he asked his overarching question of the night.

“And how are the children?”

Huff challenged parents to take their engagement beyond education. He challenged them to ask what they can do to make their community a better place. He explained to parents and teachers how critical the happiness of their students really is.

Then he told his favorite story.

Joplin opened three new schools this year on Jan. 9. A second-grade boy was walking down the halls on the first day of his brand new school when a teacher asked him a question.

“What do you think of the new building” she said, “Does it feel like school?”

He looked at her point blank and said, “No, it feels like happiness.”

Huff says one of the things he enjoys most about working with kids is they bring a whole lot of energy that adults lose over time.

“To see them come bouncing in the doors and be appreciative of the opportunity to be in school (even in the temporary facilities that we had to build) has brought a lot of joy to me…I find a lot of joy in my job watching that happen,” Huff said

Huff won the 2011 People Magazine Heroes Among Us Award for his work following the tornado. He kept his promise to the community as Joplin Schools were ready for the first day of school on Aug. 17. 

In hindsight, Huff's father was spot-on. His son had an impressive plan.