Union Grove Elementary Principal Kelley James gets a hug from one of her students.

Kelley James will retire at the end of 2019-2020 school year


Kelley James hasn’t done much sitting around during her role as principal of Union Grove Elementary School for the past seven years.

Kelley James

Each day — when school is in normal session — she is greeted with smiles, hugs and waves from little hands.

“I have loved Union Grove and will miss it tremendously,” said James, who will retire at the end of this school year, ending a 29-year career in education, including 23 years in Iredell County.

She, who said that she never intended to go beyond 30 years, feels confident that there are “many wonderful, capable people sitting in the wings ready to take the helm of their own school.”

Union Grove Elementary is as close as you’ll get to experiencing a true community school. You don’t feel the same inviting atmosphere at larger schools.

“Being a community school doesn’t mean you don’t let others in. Instead, it means those who move in are made to feel like they’ve always been there,” James explained. “That’s how the school and community have made me feel from day one. I love the size of the school.”

James has seen her dream of working as an effective community school principal plays out in the bonds that she’s formed with her students and co-workers.

“I have always loved children. Education, for me, has been more of a calling rather than a job. The fascination of watching them learn and discover … it’s mind-blowing,” she said.

The job is about relationships, relationships, relationships, said James, quoting Theodore Roosevelt. “People (children) don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

James counts the countless lives she has touched throughout her career as her greatest accomplishment.

“I think what stands out most is when I see so many of my students who have discovered who they are. They may not discover it on a traditional timeline, but they do figure it out,” James said.

“I’ve seen so many turn out to be great citizens, hard workers, wonderful parents, caring human beings, etc. What more can you ask for?” she added.

An Iredell County native, James credits her parents for helping her become the person she is today.

“My most solid foundation growing up was within my family. My parents were always hard-working people who tried to help others whenever possible — they never let my sister, Mandy, or myself be less than our potential — and loved us on so many levels,” she said.

She said that she couldn’t have fulfilled her career goals without the continuous support of her husband, former Iredell-Statesville Board of Education member Max James, and her daughter, Anna James.

“There are times when I had to choose between my job and them. They didn’t always win the choice, but they always supported me no matter what. Even in the tug-of-war between work and family, I never missed a single event in Anna’s childhood,” James said.

Inspired to Teach

James began her career with I-SS as a teacher at Harmony Elementary School. She also served as an instructional facilitator at Northview Elementary and Cloverleaf Elementary, and worked as an assistant principal at Cloverleaf and North Iredell High before being appointed principal at Union Grove Elementary in 2013.

“I was very fortunate to have opportunities to grow professionally, particularly here in I-SS. I was given opportunities to grow as a leader, which opened up the possibilities for me to eventually become an administrator,” James explained.

James’ fourth-grade teacher, Patsy Holpp, sparked her desire to teach.

“She saw my academic struggles, primarily in math, and made sure I would overcome those obstacles,” she explained. “She was the pivotal person in my life that directed me towards education as a career.”

James is a 1987 graduate of North Iredell High School. She was a North Carolina Teaching Fellow at Appalachian State University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education.

“I was fortunate to be a member of the first class of recipients of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarship. When Dianna Hankins, my math teacher at NIHS, shared the information with us about the scholarship, I felt it had been designed especially for me,” James said.

In 2001, James earned a Master of Arts degree in Elementary Education from Gardner-Webb. In spring 2009, she received her add-on licensure in school administration.

James said the most time-consuming part of her retirement will be getting her house in order. She said that her daughter and work have been her main focus for last 20 plus years.

Aside from the household chores, James plans to spend time enjoying her new patio.

“I love the sunrise behind my house and I love a good cup of hot tea and a book to read while the day starts,” she said.

Kelley James’ Tiger car has been a hit with students at Union Grove Elementary School. The car will be raffled off at the PTO fundraiser retirement dinner. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event has been postponed until October.