Aim high ... and you’ll hit something more than a cabbage: wise words from retiring Northern Ireland principal Terry Shields

Many moons ago when Terry Shields was at Banbridge Academy, one of his teachers gave him some sage advice that he was to carry with him through his 40-plus years in education.

By Graeme Cousins
Monday, 13th December 2021, 1:43 pm
Updated Monday, 13th December 2021, 3:29 pm
Terry Shields addresses King's Park Primary School at an outdoor assembly to mark his retirement
Terry Shields addresses King's Park Primary School at an outdoor assembly to mark his retirement

He recalled: “There was one teacher in the academy and she used to keep saying to us all, ‘Aim high and you’ll hit something more than a cabbage’, in other words, don’t sell yourself short or underestimate what you can do.

“I thought that was a good statement which I used for years with the children.”

He added: “Over my 40 years I have found children to be great. Sometimes they get bad press, I wouldn’t like to be facing the challenges and the issues that they’re trying to grow up with, not only primary school age but teenagers as well. It’s a very different world to the one I grew up in.”

Terry Shields with Education Authority chair Barry Mullholland

Terry, now 68, was one of 11 children growing up in Dromore: “It was a big family and I was down near the end of it. My mother often said she reared 11 children and never was through a school gate in her lifetime.

“I don’t know if I was the best student in the world, but I must have learnt somewhere along the line to read the odd book or two.

“Life’s been very good to me and I’ve met a lot of good people working in education. I wouldn’t change it.”

Terry’s first school was Dromore Central Primary School in the late 1950s where he was taught by his sister in Primary two.

Terry played for Linfield in the 1970s

He said: “She denies this, but she used to keep putting me outside the door for calling her Elizabeth instead of Miss Shields.

“I kept forgetting. She put me outside the door more than any other teacher. She still denies it, but I know it’s fact.”

He went on to Banbridge Academy before training to be a teacher at Stranmillis from 1972 to 1976. His first teaching job was in Kilkeel Primary followed by Edenderry PS in Banbridge in 1978.

He recalled: “I stayed there for 12 years, the last five as VP. That took me up to 1990, I then went as headmaster to the Armstrong in Armagh. That was quite a big school in those days, but not as big as King’s Park [Lurgan]. I was there for 10 years.

Terry graduated from Stranmillis teacher training college

“In the year 2000 I took over from Brian Cassells in King’s Park. I was there 21 years. Time seems to have flown.

“It’s just unbelievable. Even back to ‘76 I can remember some of the first pupils’ names and what they were like as clear as a bell.

“I still recognise some of them or some of them will say to me.”

Terry’s son Ashton has followed very closely in his footsteps, and is now a teacher in King’s Park, who like his father has taken a big interest in after-schools sports.

Terry said: “I’ve always been interested in sports and I’m always keen to encourage children to pick up a sport and play a sport. I’m keen to promote active lives.”

He said it was impossible to be a principal in modern times who shuts themselves off from parents: “Getting on with the parents nowadays is important. In the old days the parents didn’t go near a school at all, but nowadays you’d have parents in a lot, especially before Covid.

“A lot of the contact is done electronically now. Computers have made everybody accessible to the teacher and the teacher accessible to everybody. Most teachers find it ok and most parents find it ok but it’s just a total change in communication.”

Of the changes he has experienced over the years, Terry said: “Computers have probably been the biggest change. In the mid ‘80s we got our first BBC computer into Edenderry. It would be fair to say most teachers were afraid of it, it didn’t bite anyone as it turned out, but they were a bit apprehensive about using it. It sat in the store for about a year before anyone went near it.

“Nowadays the young ones are brilliant on the computers. The young teachers too are very much into it, it’s the way ahead.”

He added: “Another big change from when I started out is the number of newcomer children who are in schools. In the ‘70s it was just unheard of. Now most schools have a good strain of newcomer children which helps the situation I think.”

He said that it was also a positive change to see schools forging links across the maintained and controlled sector.

Other changes include how traumatic events are dealt with. Terry said: “We have a lot of staff training to deal with health and wellbeing. That’s a big thing now in schools. In the older days if there were issues, with the Troubles and that, you just got on with it.

“I was in the Armstrong in Armagh from 1992 to 2000, we had a number of sad events during that period where parents were murdered.

“In those days that you didn’t have counselling for the children like you would now, in those days you just got on with it. You didn’t talk about it in assemblies, you tried to keep going, keep things as normal as possible. When you think of it, it couldn’t be normal for those children, or any of the children.

“The school was bombed twice, I think we were back working again within two days. The whole drive was to keep things normal, keep things going. Nowadays there’s all sorts of counsellors and what they call a critical incident team.”

Linfield career cut short

Were it not for a bad injury Terry could have made a career as a footballer rather than an educator.

As a teaching student Terry had captained the Northern Ireland and Ireland university teams and also played for the British university team.

He said: “I played for Newry Town in the old B Division then I went to Linfield for a few years. I was there from about ‘73.”

Terry and his brother Tommy both played for Linfield and another brother Sandy played for and later managed Larne.

He’d impressed as a combative midfielder for the Blues until injury forced him to quit.

He said: “I got a bad injury one pre-season in a match at Windsor Park against Drogheda.

“My knee cartilage was badly damaged, I could never get back to 100% fitness again. That put an end to any thoughts of an Irish League career or a career cross channel.”

Terry then turned his attention to coaching: “I’ve been coaching more or less 50 years with schoolboys.

“I’ve enjoyed it. I always thought it was good for the children to get outside and see their teacher outside the classroom. To see that you’re sort of half normal.”

Plans for retirement

Of his plans for retirement, Terry said: “We have a wee place in Newcastle, I’ll spend a bit more time there, playing a bit of golf and walking in the mountains. We’ve also just built a house outside Banbridge.”

Terry expected that he and his wife Louise would be kept busy with babysitting duties as both his son and daughter have children that love visiting their grandparents.

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