Dynamic Leader, Significant Servant Taking the Long Way Home to Play His Part at Gary ISD
Gary Independent School District has long been known for having, and certainly for appreciating, longevity in the careers of its employees. The district has a history of people going there to be teachers or administrators and having very long—sometimes lifelong—tenures. At least two of the more recent hires there hope to continue that trend in their own lives. New-this-year high school principal Michael Powell, who also continues to teach theater, is enamored with the community and the school district and has no plans to depart. His wife Mandy, a fourth grade teacher, feels the same way.
Michael graduated from Carthage High School in 1996, attended Jacksonville Baptist College for two years, and graduated from UT Tyler in August of 2000 with a major in speech communications and a minor in sociology. He says he always had a heartfelt passion for speech, debate, and theater and was a very committed competitor on the debate team at CHS. His bright mind, facility with words, dynamic personality, and tremendous eagerness to listen carefully and respond with clarity make him the perfect candidate for these fields of study. However, an even bigger passion is his deep faith and his desire to study and share God’s Word, so after college he began pursuing a Masters degree from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, first starting in a Masters of Divinity program and later completing a Masters in Theological Studies.
Michael married his high school sweetheart, Mandy Chapman, in May of 1999. They had begun dating in October of 1995. “Ironically, our first date was to a play at Panola College,” he says, “and we never had any of those typical teenage breakups; we were together for four continuous years between that first date and the wedding.”
During his time as a student in Jacksonville, Michael attended a presentation from missionary Michael Gott, whose organization was sending teams frequently to Eastern Europe to teach English and share their faith. Michael and Mandy were both impressed with the Gott program and were very eager to join one of the teams. They made their first trip to Poland in the winter of 1999, and they fell in love with the people, returning every summer but one through 2006. “We didn’t go in 2003,” he says, “because we were expecting our first child, and we have always regretted it. We later went back with two babies in tow, and it was wonderful! As Mandy said to someone who questioned that decision at the time, ‘They have babies in Poland. I have seen them!’ We spent about six weeks there (mostly in Poland, but also some in Belarus) for seven years, so we really invested almost a year of our lives there. It was one of the greatest experiences we have ever had!”
He continues, “It was a really timely service that we were providing by teaching English! Poland wasn’t in the European Union at that time, and the people’s English proficiency wasn’t where it needed to be in order to keep up with a rapidly changing modern world. The internet was up and coming and fascinating to them, but 90 percent of it was in English. Their young people were enamored with iTunes, but the music was mostly in English. They were highly motivated to become more proficient and very appreciative for the opportunity we were offering them. Each school lasted for two weeks, and by the second week we had always built some great relationships with our students. They would ask us what could possibly motivate us to come half way around the world to teach them, and we would share our faith with them and explain that God had put in our hearts a love for His people and a deep desire to serve them. We invited and encouraged them to explore what we had shared with them and gave them a Bible, and during the rest of the week we had many great conversations about it in English.”
In 2003, Michael and Mandy moved to Nacogdoches to plant a church. In seminary he had been challenged to reread the Book of Acts and see if he could figure out what kind of church he would want to start if he were to start one. “It was impactful to hear successful foreign missionaries who were starting Biblical churches. A new church needs an ‘infant’ blueprint rather than an ‘established church’ blueprint, and it seemed like a lot of denominations were not realizing that. So we started Covenant Community, a nondenominational church of mostly SFA students that was totally mission oriented. I didn’t take a salary, and we gave 80 percent of every dollar we took in to foreign missions, and 20 percent to local missions. We had about 100 people who came through the doors, about 60 who would have called the church their church home, and a core group of about 40. Our mission was to “glorify God by impacting people.” I am convinced it’s a mission that will work for any group! I am thrilled that so many of those 40 are now out in the world doing something really good!”
Michael says 2003 was a pretty stressful year. Not only did the Powells move and plant a church, they had a baby and bought a house, and Michael began teaching speech and debate at Longview High School. “Any one of those things—moving, starting a church, having a new baby, buying a house, and being a first-year teacher commuting 700 miles weekly to work—can be stressful, but all five together were brutal. But somehow we managed to make it work.” Since first son Miles was born in 2003, the Powells have had three more children—son Miller in 2005, son Mason in April 2007, and daughter Molly in 2009.
Michael also stopped teaching for about three years and opened TBRA (an acronym for “To Be Read Aloud”) Publishing. He researched and printed materials designed to help teachers who were taking students to UIL speech contests—primarily shortcuts to assist people who were coaching oral interpretation in finding appropriate materials. But he desperately missed teaching and being with students and decided it was time to return to it; he was hired by Chireno ISD, where he taught for eight years, English alone for two years and both English and Theater for the remaining time. In 2016, his last year there, his One Act Play students placed fourth in the State of Texas for their play, Amazing Grace. Michael and Mandy had moved to Gary by that time, where she was hired to teach fourth grade, and it made sense for him to change districts, too. “However,” he explains, “out of the 13 students working on One Act Play the year before, 11 were juniors, and I just could not abandon them for their senior year. I am so glad I didn’t move before we finished that amazing year. The timing worked out great; they went on to college afterward, and I was hired by Gary ISD to teach English and Theater.”
After his first year at Gary, the principalship of the high school came open, and he was serving on the hiring committee, representing the district’s new teachers. The committee completed the first round of interviews and was very happy with one of the candidates, but he ended up not taking the job, and Michael was asked to step off the committee and apply for the principal position. He says, “I was already scheduled to start coursework for my principal certification, and the former principal had been assigned as my mentor. Since he was leaving, I had asked our superintendent Todd Greer to be my mentor. I told him that I didn’t really think I was interested in being principal yet because I really thought my job was to build a great theater and UIL program at Gary. He was patient and kind and wise and just encouraged me to continue to think about it. I had so much respect for him that I decided if he really thought it was right, maybe I should apply. As the process continued, by the time I interviewed, I knew I really wanted to do it, especially since I was going to be allowed to continue teaching Theater.”
Michael says, “If teaching is like being in the boat on the water, I think being a principal is like scuba diving beneath the boat. I had no idea there was so much underneath holding us all up. Many people do their jobs very well to keep a school afloat. For example, our secretaries Debi Young (with the district for 27 years) and Brooke Cope (for five years) are like those bumpers they put out for kids in bowling alleys. They have constantly kept me in the lane and out of the gutters all year, and they deserve far more credit than they’d be willing to take. As a teacher, I had no idea what all they did.”
He continues, “I also didn’t realize what a great superintendent we had in Todd Greer. I had admired him from a distance, but now, working with him closely, I can see how much he loves our kids, our teachers, our whole school system. And he is so easy to work for! There’s no way I could be a principal somewhere else, somewhere that didn’t have the close, fun, positive family environment we have, or a place where everything I did would be micromanaged. I never wanted to be a principal because of all the demands from the state, the administration, the teachers, the parents, the students. Principals never seem to have time to just plan and dream of what they’d like to do because they are always having to react and respond. I’m an avid planner who freaks out when I’m put in reaction mode. Here in Gary, I don’t have as much of that. I probably spend 50 percent of my time reacting and responding to unplanned and unexpected situations, but the other 50 percent I get to dream, plan, and implement creative changes.” A quick walk around the campus shows that he also spends a good bit of that time finding ways to recognize his students and to display evidence of all the good and positive things going on there, whether paper stapled to a bulletin board bragging on a student or nice expensive frames with photos of students who have placed in the top ten percent in their given field of competition.
He adds, “One of the plans I am working on is increasing the number of students we have participating in extracurricular activities. We have about 70 percent now, but every student should be involved in something that allows them to represent Gary ISD. I really want 90 to 95 percent of our students to be involved at the least. I’m also excited about our plans for an end-of-year program called “Gary Rocks” to celebrate the seniors and the school. We have rented the Esquire Theater and plan to record a live album with some of the successful musicians—students, former students, and others—who have ties to Gary!”
Michael is also a prolific writer who has written several books. His first, Victory in Jesus: Shifting the Focus of our Soul, was published when he was only 18 years old. He says, "While I am completely thankful to be at Gary ISD, my dream job would be to read and write full time—the writing for money and the reading for pleasure. I've lost count of how many books I've written over the years—more than a dozen for sure. Three of them are available on Amazon—Moments with Malachi, Teaching Poetry, and Remembering Samantha." Perhaps in retirement he will be able to fulfill this dream of full-time reading and writing.
Meanwhile, he says another reason that he and Mandy are so delighted to be living and working in Gary is that Mandy has deep family roots there. Michael says, “Her grandfather, J.R. Brannon, who taught at Panola College for a long time, was a Gary guy, and the land where we built our house has been in her family since 1895. Some of the land near the school is also family land where her great great aunt and her grandmother lived. Many of her relatives are buried in the cemetery behind the school, and all six of us already have plots there, too. We built our house anticipating a house full of kids and then grandkids, and I really believe we are in the place where will retire, and have our grandkids come see us, and be buried. We both love our lives in Gary and believe our lives here go way beyond God’s approval; we strongly feel His blessing and believe He is saying, ‘This is the plan I have for you!’”