Hillmorton High School deputy principal retires after 46 years video

IAIN MCGREGOR/Stuff.co.nz

Christchurch's Graham Leslie has died after a battle with motor neurone disease. In December 2015 when he was retiring from the assistant principal role at Hillmorton High School, he spoke to Stuff.

Graham Leslie's eyes sparkle as he activates the voice on his iPad to say his 46 years of teaching were "never a chore". 

The Hillmorton High School deputy principal has motor neurone disease, and is retiring after spending his whole career at the Christchurch school.

The disease may have taken his voice, but the sprightly 72-year-old has adapted to the challenge in the same way he has the decades of changes in education.

"Last year, about September, I started to notice the odd word was hard to say, so I started on a series of tests."

It was a "drawn out process" that eventually had him diagnosed in August.

The disease either affected limbs, or voice and swallowing. For him it was the latter.

The father-of-two and grandfather-of-five started using an iPad to communicate in September.

"By then my voice was getting harder to understand."

When Leslie's grandchildren, who were born in London, heard the text-to-voice app, they said it sounded like the voice from Thomas the Tank Engine. The British voice he had the app set to was also called Graham.

The geography teacher kept his remaining senior class informed of his condition, and used booklets, his iPad, and help from another teacher to communicate in the final weeks.

Hillmorton High deputy principal Graham Leslie, who has motor neurone disease, is resigning after 46 years at the school.
IAIN McGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Hillmorton High deputy principal Graham Leslie, who has motor neurone disease, is resigning after 46 years at the school.

"They were very supportive and patient with me and we all managed to get through all the necessary work."

The disease made him more emotional than before, and his eyes welled up when talking about his final days at the school.

"It has been a little overwhelming for me because all I thought I did for the last 46 years was my job."

Leslie was treated to two farewell events, one where he was presented with a korowai, or Maori cloak, and another attended by hundreds of former staff and students.

He stayed at the school so long because of "the feel of the place", the students, the friendliness of staff, and the "community feel to it".

"I also had a chance to reinvent myself about every seven years by changing my responsibilities."

He once joked to staff he had done every job in the school since he began in 1970, except driven the tractor. The next week he arrived at school and the tractor was parked outside the staffroom ready for him to drive around the field.

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His advice to new teachers was: "Try to enjoy it."

"Don't let the tough bits make you forget the good ones."

He recommended getting involved with sports - like he had with basketball - or other activities "where the kids can see you as a person".

"Those relationships are what the students remember, not the classroom."

Principal Ann Brokenshire, who was Leslie's fourth principal, said he "walks the talk" and was a "stunning" role model.

"In many ways this is his school. He is my go-to person."

He had more scholarship students than any other subject in the school.

"Students would take geography just to be in his class," Brokenshire said.

They knew if they did what he asked them, they would succeed.

The korowai was considered a suitable gift "because we do see him as a taonga, as a treasure".

 - Stuff

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