- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2021

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - In his four decades as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools educator, Joey Burch found his calling.

After knee issues ended his time as an athlete, he stayed involved in high school sports as the announcer at football games and by painting the football fields. And when he started to think about his time after high school, becoming a physical education teacher felt like a natural extension.

“I think it was probably around that time that I started thinking I could keep my hands in athletics and hopefully have some positive influence on kids through coaching and through teaching,” he said.

As he retires from a 41-year CMS career - 25 spent as a principal and most recently at Levine Middle College High School - teachers and students who came through the schools Burch led said he had a remarkable impact on their lives. They recalled how Burch elevated their careers, knew every one of his students and always looked out for their well-being.

On a chilly December afternoon, Burch walked out of his office, dressed in a Christmas sweater, to what he thought would be a routine textbook drop-off. Instead, he was greeted by a seemingly endless procession of students, teachers and administrators who had worked with him over the years, driving by in their cars for a socially-distant retirement celebration.

“I am overwhelmed, I am very humbled,” Burch said. “My career in CMS just flashed before my eyes. It’s just been a real blessing for me.”

A Charlotte native, Burch graduated from Independence High School before completing his associates degree at Central Piedmont Community College. After finishing his teaching degree at Appalachian State, he joined CMS as a health and physical education teacher at Carmel Junior High.

During his 12 years of teaching, school principals and Burch’s mentors gently nudged him to pursue leadership positions. They’d ask him to fill in for open administrative positions, learning the ropes before he eventually made the jump to being an assistant principal at South Charlotte Middle School.

“One of them taught me, ‘Burch, you as a leader, you make sure there’s nobody working harder than you are,’” he recalled.

“You must understand that everybody is always watching. If you’re walking down the hallways and you see a piece of paper on the floor, you pick it up, because if people see you doing it, they’re going to do it.”

Teachers who worked under Burch at Levine said they saw him model that philosophy as a leader. Kimberly Tuttle, an English teacher at Levine and the 2019 CMS teacher of the year, said Burch could be found pitching in around the school, whether that was shoveling snow, taking over lunch duty so teachers could catch a break or wiping down any dirty desk in his line of sight.

William Hause, a teacher at Levine, said Burch can regularly be seen personally giving tours to prospective parents and students, pitching them on the middle college program. In the classroom, Hause said, Burch always made his teachers feel like they had his trust and had free rein to experiment.

“He says, ’go do what you do and be successful,” Hause said. “I’ll make an escape room with the Constitution, and he’s just like, ‘Ok! I’d like to come and see it.’”

Burch said he has seen 12 superintendents come and go in his time in CMS. After South Charlotte Middle, Burch returned to Carmel as an assistant principal before he was promoted to principal, taking over the helm of Smith Academy of International Languages. Later, he served as principal for J.M. Alexander Middle and North Mecklenburg High School, some of the largest schools in the state.

Tuttle said that at schools small and large, Burch made everybody who passed through the building feel deeply cared for. She was at school when she learned that her father was terminally ill, she said, and Burch was the first person she told. He immediately sent her home to be with family, and when she came back two weeks later, he took her aside to pray for her and her family.

“He said, ‘I cannot let you start your day back with me without a prayer,’” she said. “And that was that moment for me. I’ve never had experience like that with a principal or leader.”

In 2010, as he first became eligible for retirement, Burch was asked to become the principal of Cato Middle College High School. The school was in its early years as one of North Carolina’s cooperative innovative high schools, which are partnerships between school districts and institutions of higher education that give students the opportunity to pursue advanced classes. In the CMS middle college program, students take classes with CPCC and have the opportunity to graduate with college credits and an associate’s degree.

Burch was tasked with growing the program to full capacity. But he was so successful that it quickly sprouted a waitlist as families wanted to enroll. CMS and CPCC created the Levine campus as a result, where Burch became principal. It didn’t take long before Levine also had a waitlist from excessive demand, which led to the establishment of the Merancas and Harper campus programs.

While Burch has stayed at Levine, he helped oversee the launches of the later middle college programs, from running the enrollment lotteries to hosting the open houses and orientations. Each time he considered retiring, he said, CMS would open a new middle college program, enticing him to stay through another launch.

“There’s some people you just can’t ever get rid of so that’s probably how CMS feels right now,” he said. “Finally, the day has come, we’re gonna get rid of the old man, and let somebody else come in and help make it even better.”

When Jamie Brooks, now the principal at Ardrey Kell High School, was looking for her first teaching job out of college, she knew she wanted to return to Charlotte. So she made a call to Burch, who had been her 7th grade physical education teacher and who was now an administrator at South Charlotte Middle School.

“I remember vividly meeting with Mr. Burch in his office,” Brooks recalled. “He said he needed to make a phone call to Ron Thompson over at Carmel, and that it would be a great place for me, and it gave me the confidence when I was interviewing.”

She landed the job. Years later, as a principal at Community House Middle School, Brooks had an opening for a physical education teacher. She got a call from Burch, who let her know his son, Brandon, was interviewing for the position but that he did not want any favors.

Throughout Brandon Burch’s interview, Brooks said nothing about her personal connection and let her staff take the lead. Despite a pool of other candidates with more experience, Brooks said her staff felt like Brandon showed something special.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Ms. Brooks, I know we had a couple of candidates, but I want to work with that young kid,’” she recalled. “It was really special to me, after all Joey did for me, he always was there for me, always supportive, for me to be able to have it full circle and give his son a job.”

Before the pandemic, Burch’s vision for retirement was to leave his keys on his desk and drive with his wife with no destination in mind, taking time to travel. But now, he says he plans to spend more time with family, including a young granddaughter. He said he’s already been asked to come back to CMS next year, filling in as an interim principal.

“You know, I’m just waiting to see what my next calling is,” he said.

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