Jessie Linkous Gravel – Class of 2005
Principal, Walter Johnson Middle School

“As a teacher, I fell in love with the ‘lightbulb’ moment going off in kids. As a principal, I have again fallen in love with the lightbulb moment in adults. I enjoy helping teachers grow their professional capacity, leading to better outcomes for our students, which is the most important part of my job.”

Jessie Linkous Gravel is currently the principal at Walter Johnson Middle School in Morganton. Like so many other dedicated educators, her journey began at a young age. “I have always wanted to be a teacher,” she proclaims. “If I could go to school full-time and be paid for it, that would be my dream job.”

As a high school senior, Jessie received the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarship and graduated in 2009 from UNC-Chapel Hill with a BA degree in French and Francophone Studies. In 2012 she earned a Master of Arts in Teaching for K-12 French from UNC-Charlotte, and in 2018, as a member of the prestigious North Carolina Principal Fellows program, received a Masters in Educational Leadership, also from UNC-Charlotte. She continues her education by pursuing a doctorate degree from Western Carolina University.

She began her career by teaching French in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, and, upon returning to Burke County, served as principal of Drexel Elementary School. In 2023, she moved on to Walter Johnson Middle School.

“My duties vary depending on the day and season of the school year. No day is ever the same. The duties range from classroom observations, student discipline, driving the school improvement plan, stakeholder communication, payroll, data analysis, and so much more.

“This job is so challenging because it requires a vast scope of knowledge, and the stakes are high! Student success depends on it! It has been even more challenging in a post-Covid world. Student mental health needs are easy to see, and we work hard to fill in learning gaps caused by remote and virtual learning.”

Always a classroom teacher at heart, she occasionally gets the opportunity to step back into that role for a while. “I adored my time in the classroom and love it when I get the chance to teach a class in my principalship role.”

Jessie was chosen as the 2022-23 Burke County Principal of the Year and then moved on to be named 2023 North Carolina Wells Fargo Northwest Region Principal of the Year. To be recognized as one of only nine regional principals in the state is quite the honor, but Jessie’s announcement was especially memorable because it was made during a surprise assembly at school. Her remarks at the time reflect her passion for the job: “Our success is because of the incredibly hard-working men and women who come here every single day for the betterment of the lives of all these children right here. And I’m so grateful to be able to come to work and see you each day and laugh with you, cry with you, smile with you.”

Jessie not only puts student learning first, but she also is very serious about her role in helping educators achieve. “I believe that not only can all students learn but that all students want to learn, and it is up to us as educators to create an environment that is engaging, that is rigorous, and where they want to come and be with their friends each day and learn. The adults are the ticket holders to kids’ success.

“My job as principal and my leadership team’s job is to create a culture and climate that is conducive to joy. As adults like where they work, then our kids are going to make good moves. I think students are too often left out of the discussion. Out of the mouths of babes can come great data. It is amazing how our youngest students can articulate what works well for them, and that’s another data point for us to consider as a team when we are planning lessons, when we are designing classrooms, when we are talking about behavior procedures. It’s really critical to be sure student voice is honored.

“I think the number one piece of our academic programing is relationships. I think that’s what helps us move the mark. It’s never too late to have a restart conversation with students or with parents or with any other stakeholder as needed. I believe in meeting students where they are, and when we use high impact instructional strategy, I know that we will get growth out of each and every student.”

Several of Jessie’s high school teachers made a lasting impact on her life and pursuit of a career in education. “The Anchor Club is a service organization for high school women, and I enjoyed serving as president during my senior year. Kristy Hodges, our advisor, had very high expectations of the girls in the club. TR Robinson was our swim coach. He motivated all of us to improve; he was such a fun coach and pushed us to achieve. Dr. Robert McAdams taught me how to write. All of us students would do everything we could to make Dr. Mac proud of us. I hate math, so it took a special teacher to help me succeed in math class. Ramona Barus was that teacher. She was funny, and she made her class fun. She was another teacher whom we would strive to make proud.

“And of course there was Roy Sweezy, in whose classroom my love of the French language first began. Mr. Sweezy guided a group of us East Burke students on a spring break trip to Italy and France, and I was set on the road to learning more about the language and culture.”

As we have witnessed through the years, East Burke has provided a quality education to countless young people, and many of them have been called to continue that standard of excellence in the classroom and in administrative roles. The public school system is fortunate to have such a dedicated and visionary educator as Jessie. “I want to stay in education,” she says, “and I would like the opportunity to serve on the high school and district levels.” With whatever position she holds, she will continue to make a difference in the community and in the world.

Published April 2024

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