Hilary is currently the Principal of Belfast Royal Academy, having previously served with distinction as Principal of Antrim Grammar School, Acting Principal and permanent Vice-Principal of Victoria College Belfast. Hilary taught in Wallace for over a decade before leaving to take up a position as Head of Department in Victoria. When this was sent to our website manager Mr DD Simpson, he noted he had been a pupil in Hilary’s L6 IT class and that her “humour and way with pupils” had been “superb”. Mr Simpson is another former pupil who came back to experience the other side of the desk; Hilary clearly inspired him and doubtless many others!
What did you study at A level at Wallace?
I studied A levels in Mathematics, Physics and Biology. In retrospect, these were not my strongest subjects and I probably should have chosen to study English Literature which I loved. However, I harboured some ambitions at the age of 16 to study engineering and follow in the footsteps of my grandfather who had been a civil engineer and consequently chose my subjects to facilitate this career path.
In saying that, I enjoyed my A level subjects and was lucky enough to have inspirational teachers including Mrs Flavelle, Mrs Hull and Mr Twyble.
What is your best Wallace memory?
I loved my time as a pupil in Wallace High School and feel that my experience had a huge influence on the career path I chose. I was fortunate to have been taught by so many excellent teachers – Mr Spiers (Bunion), Mr Thompson (Slasher), Miss Fulton, Mr Crothers – who had high expectations of us all. When we were in Sixth Form, we had the opportunity to attend classes in Lisburn Technical College (as it was known then) for typewriting – this was ahead of the word-processing era! The ability to touch type has proven to be an incredibly useful skill all these years later.
The Upper Sixth tradition of Christmas Pie has been a highlight of the school calendar for many years, as it was in my final year of school, and we had such fun in staging this in December 1983. As pupils we were fairly caustic in our mimicking of the teachers – my friend Helen Bolas did an amazing impression of Flo Boyd – and creating sketches that we thought were hilarious but probably no-one else understood! It is lovely to know that this tradition still continues.
I also completed the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme to Gold level under the expert guidance and tutelage of a number of teachers but I particularly remember the legend that was Bill Wilson. I don’t think I will ever forget how we navigated our way through many obstacles and setbacks during various expeditions, got soaked to the skin as we stumbled through the Mournes and the Sperrins whilst belting out Culture Club and Bonnie Tyler numbers to get us through the hard slog! There is nothing like the camaraderie that such an experience engenders in a group of teenagers, nor the sense of accomplishment when we completed our goal. I am very grateful that so many staff gave up so much of their time to provide us with this experience and to nurture an appreciation of hill-walking and team work.
I so enjoyed my time as a pupil in Wallace that I was delighted to have the opportunity to return as a teacher. I taught Computer Science and Mathematics there for 11 years before taking up a post in Victoria College and really enjoyed my time on the other side of the desk.
What values do you think the school taught you?
The value of compassion for others. From Form 1 we were encouraged to contribute to the weekly charity collection (which was always taken up in Miss Long’s English class) and to put the needs of others before our own in terms of community service, visiting residents in Thompson House. I think that having ‘a mind to be kind’ is a hugely important trait and an area that we were encouraged in throughout school.
The ability to have self-awareness to recognise that there is usually someone who is more intelligent or more talented or more skilled than you in many aspects of life and to seek advice from those amongst us who are better and more experienced that we are.
To have humility when recognising that we often make mistakes or take wrong decisions that take us away from the place we had hoped we would be. It is never too late to change track, amend our outlook and reach our goals.
What are the greatest challenges and greatest joys of your work?
I regard teaching as an incredibly privileged profession. Teachers are surrounded every day by young people with their boundless energy, humour, zest for life and optimism. Teachers have the opportunity to serve the needs, not only of generations of pupils but also the school and local community. Teachers are in a position of trust where they can develop young people, broaden their minds, help them to shape their beliefs, encourage them to achieve their goals and empower them to make life changing decisions when necessary. As a school leader, I am the figure head of the organisation and therefore in a position to shape policy but ultimately, I hope to have a positive impact on the young people whom I serve.
Aside from the current challenges of leading a school during the Covid pandemic, the greatest challenges of my work are helping young people overcome adversity which may present as a physical illness, or a mental health issue or family problems.
What advice would you give your 18 year old self?
Trust your judgement, make the most of every opportunity you are presented with and never stop learning.
What do you regard as your greatest achievement?
My greatest personal achievement would be my two sons – Simon is a recent mechanical engineering graduate of Newcastle University and working for PwC and Mark is a student of modern languages in Durham University.
My greatest professional achievement is my appointment as Principal of Belfast Royal Academy. The school has a proud history as the oldest school in Belfast and I am proud to serve the pupils, staff and the local community in North Belfast.
Last modified: January 22, 2021