Dr Claire Hills stands between Chanel College head girl Mackenzie Batchelor, and head boy Nicolas Penman. PHOTO/ELI HILL.

ELI HILL
eli.hill@age.co.nz

On Wednesday, at 11.30am, school stopped at Chanel College.

Pupils, family, staff, parents and members of education community gathered at the school hall to celebrate teacher Dr Claire Hills, who has been with the college since its foundation in 1978.

Her career, spanning more than 52 years, was further commemorated by the renaming of the school assembly hall – now named the Dr Claire Hills Hall.

That gesture took her breath away.

“It was crazy – I was just shocked.”

The 74-year-old teacher of everything from history to French finished her fulltime teaching role at the college on Friday.

Hills comes from a long line of teachers and had an ambition to become a teacher from a young age.

She began teaching at a convent in Island Bay in 1966.

After becoming “hooked” on Catholic education and its holistic approach, Hills moved with her husband Peter to Masterton.

She took up relieving when she had children and was nicknamed ‘Speedy Gonzales’ by some of the boys she taught due to her passing them on a bicycle as she made her way between schools.

The speedy teacher was there when Chanel College opened and one of her sons was a foundation pupil.

Since then Hills has taught drama, history, French and English to year 13 pupils. She’s been a dean, a form teacher, a principal’s nominee, head of English and a careers adviser.

“I really haven’t had the opportunity to become bored,” she said.

Among the things Hills has been involved in was the creation of a wharenui for the college with friend and Te Reo teacher Selina Waru.

“She was around at my house one day and she was talking about teaching in a classroom and wouldn’t it be wonderful to have our own wharenui.

“My husband came through the kitchen door, and he said, ‘I know you ladies like to talk but why don’t you do something about it’ . . . and so we thought ‘all right then’.”

The pair emptied out their pockets and found they had $14. They went to the bank and opened the Chanel College marae bank account with the money.

Hills said that people didn’t take their ambition seriously.

“There were people saying to us ‘it’ll never happen’ and ‘you’ll get over it’.”

But it was Hills and Waru who had the last laugh. Within two years they were opening the wharenui on Chanel College grounds.

“If you want to teach science you figure out you need a science lab, if you want to teach cooking you figure you need ovens.

“If you’re teaching a language like Maori where the information and culture go hand in hand, you need a space for it.”

While having eight children, fundraising for a wharenui, and holding down a fulltime job might be enough for some, Hill’s enthusiasm for the job has prompted her to further her own learning.

After the death of her husband, Hills decided to study for her PhD while keeping up fulltime teaching.

“My husband had seen a couple of academic parades, and he said to me, ‘I’d like to see you in one of those gowns one day’.

“When my husband died, I had to find a new way of being Claire. Doing the doctorate gave me some way to absorb my energies while I worked through my personal issues after he died.”

Hills said that being the mother of eight had taught her to not sweat the small stuff and find “little oases of opportunity” where she was able to carry out her study on school closures and mergers.

She completed the PhD in 2013.

Hills is leaving fulltime teaching but plans to stay a part of the school community she calls her “second family”.

She will be back doing relief teaching and has volunteered to help the school’s drama and debating teams – she also plans to do further study.

“I’ve been so lucky that I have a career that I love and continue to love because many people don’t,” she said.