Deputy Superintendent Joey Pirkle reflected on his career as he neared retirement with Forsyth County Schools at the end of the school year, remembering his first day teaching at Otwell Middle School in 1986.
He taught science alongside a colleague who had taught when Pirkle was still a student there, a weird feeling that soon blossomed into one of love and familiarity.
Pirkle has never strayed too far from Forsyth County. He was born and raised in the community, beginning school at Cumming Elementary before heading to Otwell Middle as a student when it first opened and then graduating from Forsyth County High School, now known as Forsyth Central.
The only time he left the county was to attend college, but even then, he stayed close to home. He earned his associate degree at Reinhardt University before transferring to the University of North Georgia where he earned his bachelor’s in education. He later also earned his master’s at Georgia State University.
He started teaching at Otwell immediately after graduating from UNG, and aside from that initial weird feeling he had working beside teachers he had as a student, he instantly fell in love with the school. He has poured all his energy and passion into the school district ever since, serving students, families, staff members, principals and the county in the many roles he has taken on.
On Friday, May 28, Pirkle walked away from Forsyth County Schools for the first time in 35 years, retiring from his role as the district’s first deputy superintendent.
“It is bittersweet, I will tell you,” Pirkle said. “When you do something in an organization for 35 years and your passion has been that [job], it’s difficult. It’s exciting, but it’s difficult. Because my passion has been for this school district for 35 years, and I’ve poured my life and soul and heart into this district for that many years.”
Looking back, Pirkle said he began his career at FCS for much of the same reason any teacher does — because he loves kids. And he took that love for kids with him into every role he served in the district.
After teaching at Otwell for more than seven years, his principal at the time, Judy Thornton, inspired him to go into leadership. She saw potential in him as a leader and pushed him to climb further in the school district, and her influence had a huge impact on him.
He took her advice, and soon ended up as an assistant principal at Chestatee Elementary, which led him on a path to leadership roles throughout the district.
In 1997, he moved over to Mashburn Elementary to serve as assistant principal there before finally taking over as principal at Cumming Elementary in the next school year. As he took over as a principal of a school for the first time, Thornton continued to be a great role model for him.
“I always wanted to be a principal like her,” Pirkle said.
Later, Pirkle moved back to Mashburn to serve as principal there before applying for an opportunity at the district level. When he found out he would then be taking over as FCS’ associate superintendent, a mix of feelings rushed through him.
“The thing that was the most difficult for me coming here was I really missed being with kids every day,” Pirkle said. “I always was a principal that became very attached to my kids …. But the work that I did was a lot of the same kind of work. I was still doing work to help kids in the long run, but it wasn’t directly with kids.”
To best help the students and schools, Pirkle decided to put much of his focus on principals as he headed to the district office for the first time in 2006. Being in the same position for much of his career, he wanted to make sure they felt supported and were given any resources they needed to make sure their schools’ needs were being met.
After many years, principals across the district have said Pirkle made a huge impact on them, and they could all see the passion he brought into FCS each day.
Forsyth Central High School Principal Mitch Young, who will be taking over as deputy superintendent over the summer, said Pirkle has always offered support to him, especially as he prepares for his transition to the district office after spending nearly his entire life inside of a school.
Bob Carnaroli, the principal at North Forsyth High School, said he will miss working with Pirkle.
“I am honored to know and have worked with Joey for 27 years,” Carnaroli said. “He has always been so supportive of me in all my roles from lead counselor, assistant principal to my current role as principal at North Forsyth. His patience and grace with everyone is unmatched. He wants nothing but the best for all students and staff in each of our schools. I knew that I could always count on him to help me and talk me through any issue or situation, even during his busiest of times. I wish him health and happiness in his next journey.”
Carnaroli thanked Pirkle, saying that he appreciates him and his work in the district.
As FCS grew over the years, Pirkle also said one of his main goals was to maintain the family-feel that the district had when he first started teaching back in 1986. At that time, there were 11 total schools in FCS, and that has since grown to 43 today.
While he loves the school system’s growing and more diverse student body, he recognizes that in many areas, as the district becomes larger, it’s more difficult to manage and offer support to staff inside of the schools.
For Pirkle, it was important that no teacher, staff member, principal, parent or student felt left outside of the FCS family.
“I want principals and leaders in our district to feel very comfortable calling to the district office and someone answers the phone and they can speak to someone,” Pirkle said. “We have people who move here from other districts, and they can’t believe that they can call the deputy superintendent and he just answers the phone. Or the superintendent comes out. But that’s the way we operate. We’re here to serve schools.”
Having served in many different roles in the district — a student, parent of two daughters who graduated out of FCS, teacher, principal and district leader — Pirkle said it was easy to connect with everyone in the district and really make sure he was listening to their issues or concerns.
In the end, he said it’s always been important to him to remember he is not above anyone in the district as associate or deputy superintendent.
“I’m just working alongside everybody in the district so we can all achieve the same goals, and that’s doing what is best for the kids,” Pirkle said. “That’s our number one priority is we always do what’s best for the kids.”
Pirkle served as associate superintendent until 2013 when Dr. Jeff Bearden took over as the school system’s superintendent. When Bearden first joined the district, he created the deputy superintendent position, which Pirkle stepped into to serve the superintendent more closely.
His responsibilities remained mainly the same, but he started working to make sure he could support Bearden in any way possible, even sometimes taking over for him in meetings when he had other events or meetings to attend.
He worked closer to Bearden in the last few years -- more closely than he has worked with any other superintendent -- and he said it has been an amazing experience.
“Dr. Bearden is a phenomenal superintendent,” Pirkle said. “I have absolutely loved working with him. And what I love most about him is he is who he is, and there are no agendas with him …. He has a very clear vision for the school district, and everyone knows the vision. He is very honest. He’s very easy to work with because he’s very open in telling you what he expects and what he wants. And that’s easy.”
Pirkle has looked up to Bearden and his work in the past few years along with the other superintendents he has worked with throughout the years, and Bearden has, in turn, looked up to Pirkle and the hard work he’s shown the district.
“We congratulate Joey on his well-earned retirement and thank him for his many years of service, from the classroom, as principal, and as deputy superintendent,” Bearden said. “Joey has the heart of a servant leader and is the ultimate professional, always ready to listen, learn and lead for all in our district.”
Going forward, Pirkle is looking forward to his retirement and spending more quality time with his wife. Meanwhile, he said he will keep an eye on the school system from his home, which is just a 10-minute drive from the district office.
He looks forward to seeing the amazing things the district will accomplish in the coming years as they continue to move forward with the same goal — to do what’s best for the kids in Forsyth County.
“I used to tell teachers all the time when I was a principal that we can know all kinds of things and have all kinds of knowledge, and that’s good,” Pirkle said. “But if you don’t have a heart for kids, then none of that is going to matter. You, first and foremost, have to have a heart for kids. You’ve got to love kids.
“And I’ve loved all my kids. All the kids I taught. All the kids I was assistant principal for. That I was principal for. And then I’ve been in this position for. I’ve loved all of them.”