Forty years after stepping into the classroom as an enthusiastic young teacher, David Gillespie has retired as principal of Tandragee Junior High School, having spent his entire career in the Dickson Plan.
And it is a plan he has fought tirelessly to ensure remains in the area, having witnessed its success from a professional and personal viewpoint.
Not only has he seen successive pupils go on to successful careers, but both his sons went through the system with Ashley now a chartered accountant and Philip an electronic engineer.
Mr Gillespie began his teaching career in the mid-1970s at Clounagh JHS where he taught English and PE and ‘cut his teeth’ under then-principal, the legendary DL (David) Watson.
Said Mr Gillespie, “Mr Watson gave me the opportunity to do postgraduate study for one year full-time in careers and counselling and I successfully completed the course and returned to Clounagh a year later to take on additional duties.”
In 1985, he was appointed to his alma mater, Portadown College, as head of careers with overall responsibility for UCAS applications.
“I was privileged to have as my principal and mentor, Mr Harry Armstrong, a man from whom I picked up so many leadership/management skills which stood me in great stead in later years,” he said.
After Mr Armstrong retired, Mr Tom Flannagan took over the role of principal, and again Mr Gillespie forged a strong working relationship with the new head who also helped develop his leadership skills.
After successfully completing a Master’s degree in Education at Queen’s University and the Professional Qualification for Headship through RTU, Mr Gillespie was appointed principal of Tandragee JHS in 2002 following the retirement of Jim Larmour.
Even though he had completed his qualification in headship, he says nothing prepared him for the role in the ‘hot seat’.
Despite the many challenges, he describes his 14 years as principal as “exceptionally enjoyable and immensely rewarding”, and says that with the support of staff and governors “you learn to weather the storm”.
He is also extremely proud to have led the school through two very successful inspections. In 2010 the school was one of only 12 post-primary schools to be recognised by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) as “very good with outstanding in certain areas”.
In 2014, as part of ETI’s new inspection model, Tandragee JHS was one of five post primary schools piloted, and yet again was described as “outstanding and highly effective in the chosen areas”.
Mr Gillespie takes a lot of pride in the academic achievements of former pupils who are working in a wide variety of careers. He added, “Just recently, I learned that one of our former pupils from the Learning Support Centre is currently studying at a mainland university.”
A firm believer that education is more than what takes place in the classroom, he is convinced that involvement in the school’s wide extra-curricular programme is crucial to overall development, and is very proud of the school’s sporting, musical and many other successes.
He is keen to point out that such success has only been possible with the unfailing commitment of staff, parents and governors who have supported the school over the years.
He paid tribute to Board of Governors chairmen Timothy Mayes and Roy Leckey, with special thanks to Mr Leckey, the current chair, and vice-chair Mr Walter Marks, for their dedication and wise counsel over the years.
He also thanked the former SELB, now the Education Authority, Southern Region for their many refurbishment projects “that have left the school in an excellent state of repair and extremely well-equipped to deliver the NI curriculum”.
Mr Leckey, who worked with Mr Gillespie for up to 14 years as vice-chairman and now chairman of the Board of Governors, described him as a very successful principal.
He said, “Academic standards improved during his time at the school, and many of the facilities were also upgraded or replaced. There were difficult periods but the Board of Governors, in conjunction with Mr Gillespie, met all the challenges facing us.
“On behalf of the governors, I wish him and his wife Pat all the best in their retirement.”
Although Mr Gillespie is retiring to spend more time with Pat, a retired midwife, and grandsons Zac and Harry, he also intends to retain a role in education, as an assessor with the Education Authority.
And while he will miss the staff, pupils and “very supportive” parents, he believes the time is right to hand over the reins to “a younger pair of hands”.
He added, “This year, the GCSE and A Level results of former pupils exceeded all expectations with two pupils achieving the top GCSE results in both Portadown College and Craigavon Senior High School.”
The new principal is Wayne Brown, a former teacher at Markethill High School and latterly vice-principal of Cookstown High School.
Added Mr Gillespie, “I want to wish Wayne Brown every blessing for the future as he takes on his new and challenging role.
“He can rest assured that he will be well supported by an excellent senior leadership team of vice-principal Mrs Laverne Inns and senior teacher Ruth Mattison, and a very committed staff and supportive Board of Governors.”