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Meet the inspirational vice principal who has turned around the lives of scores of pupils to ensure they have the career they always dreamt of

Now back with a new date and a stunning new venue, the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards wants your nominations. As the countdown gets under way to our glamorous event on June 16, Stephanie Bell talks to one of last year’s amazing winners, Charleen Gordon, the Groomsport teacher whose leadership, drive and enthusiasm have helped make a success of an amalgamated school

Published 14/04/2016

Reaping rewards: vice principal of Breda Academy Charleen Gordon
Reaping rewards: vice principal of Breda Academy Charleen Gordon
Charlene Gordon with some of her students in the classroom

The pride Charleen Gordon has in her students is obvious as she talks about the successful first year of her new school, Breda Academy.

The winner of the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Education 2015 has played a huge role in helping make Belfast's newest education centre a reality for children in south Belfast.

For Charleen it was always about giving pupils a chance to stay on at school, and it gives her no end of satisfaction to see a thriving sixth year in the new academy.

Charleen was given the challenging job of acting principal at Knockbreda High School three years ago when it was threatened with closure.

She was determined to save the school and show staff and pupils that they were an important part of the local community.

Even though her own health has not been good, she overcame it to work day and night to try and find a way to keep the school open.

And her hard work paid off when the school was amalgamated with Newtownbreda High, forming the new Breda Academy of which Charleen is vice principal.

Now, nearing the end of its first year, no one is happier than Charleen that the children from both schools have settled.

And, as nominations open for this year's Woman of the Year in Education Award, our current winner reflects on what has been another challenging yet satisfying year in her career.

"There have been small challenges - as we expected opening a new school - but the pupils got down to it really well. Now, they are very settled and engaged in the classrooms," Charleen says.

"All the staff have worked very hard, the parents have been great, and we have had superb support at parent meetings.

"We had our first formal for Year 12 before Easter and it was absolutely brilliant.

"These kids, who came from separate schools, came together as one and were a real credit to the academy. And it was just lovely for the staff to be there and see both groups together enjoying themselves and getting on so well."

Charleen (55), lives in Groomsport with her husband Stephen (58), who is retired, and their two children, Michael (17) and Ali (23), who were delighted with her award.

In a moving submission, Michael said of his mum: "She always told us she was determined to prove that education is never wasted, even on those of us who are at the bottom of the pile. And that is what she has done and what she wants her pupils to learn."

Charleen was thrilled to win the Woman of the Year in Education Award and, typically, saw it as a chance to put the spotlight on her school, its staff and pupils.

She recalls: "I was really shocked to get the award but it was great that education is highlighted and in such a positive way.

"There was a lot of excitement and I had lots of parents ringing me up to congratulate me.

"The board of governors, the staff and pupils were all thrilled and it was really nice to celebrate for the school.

"The pupils wanted me to do a 'show and tell' in the assembly with my trophy, which was a bit embarrassing, but they were so excited and that made it extra special.

"I had a great night and hadn't realised just how big an event it was. My daughter Ali came with me and we had a really wonderful night.

"It was really nice to see other people, hear their stories and see the good side of Northern Ireland promoted and the positive things you forget are going on."

For Charleen teaching isn't a job but a vocation. And during her 30-year career teaching in Knockbreda High, her heart has always been with showing young people that through education they can achieve whatever they want in life.

Nothing gives her more pleasure than when one of her pupils chooses to do a college course or apprenticeship.

To help make this possible some years ago she started a GNVQ course for pupils who had a statistically low chance of going on to further education. And, as a result, many have gone on to pursue careers in nursing and in management posts with large companies.

She is also the chief examiner for GCSE child development and has contributed to the Heenan Anderson Commission - which was established to examine the causes of economic marginalisation and deprivation in Northern Ireland. Once again batting for children, Charleen submitted an argument for why school children in working class areas are being marginalised and what can be done to combat the low aspirations of many of our young people.

Now the fact that the new academy offers young people the chance to come back to further their studies in sixth year is, for her, the culmination of all her hopes as a teacher.

"Teaching has to be about the children. I don't know how anybody could do the job if they don't enjoy children," she says.

"I was just listening the other day to Year 12 pupils talking to each other and it was clear they want to do well. It is about giving them that opportunity rather than doing nothing and then they are not able to find a job.

"Having a range of sixth year options for both schools is something I always aimed for. To be able to give the children the chance to stay on - and that has worked really well. Now, we have a very busy sixth year.

"I've always focused on the pupils, to me that is what it's all about.

"I just love being a teacher. And it is in teaching that I get the buzz, so I'm glad that I am taking some classes in the new school. I get so much out of it and it's lovely to think you might have made a difference."

Throughout all her efforts Charleen has had to cope with ill-health. She suffers from crippling arthritis and has come through two knee replacements and a hip replacement. She currently needs another hip replacement which she has been putting on hold because she says she "can't leave the kids". She adds: "I have not had good health and it has been physically challenging. I couldn't have done it without the support of my children and husband. My family has never complained - even when it meant I was working nights.

"I'm hoping to get my second hip replacement this year. It is tough and I do feel it at the end of a busy day, but I try not to let it affect my work too much.

"The kids make it worthwhile and I am back in the classroom teaching some classes now which I love.

"My family live with it as well and they know what I can and can't do. They know it gets me down sometimes, but they are brilliant and I couldn't do it without their support.

"My kids are lovely and we are all very close - and I hope I don't complain too much."

Nominate your choice for Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year

How to enter:

The 2016 Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in association with The OUTLET will take place with a glitzy gala ceremony at the five star Culloden Hotel on Thursday, June 16 at 7pm, and will be hosted once again by Wendy Austin.

We are asking you again to nominate outstanding women you know in each of our nine categories. We want to hear about women who have made a difference in your life or the lives of others.

Nominations may be made by anyone who knows an individual they believe is worthy of an award. For each category, the nominee should have been in her line of work for at least 12 months and have shown particular success - a demonstrable measure of achievement, in terms of how she inspired others around her and how she has demonstrated passion, drive and energy in what she does.

Each category winner will be presented with a beautiful Belleek Living trophy at the gala dinner in the Culloden Hotel on the night of the awards.

You may enter nominations in any or all of the nine categories.

The overall award for Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in association with The OUTLET, Banbridge, will be chosen by the judges from the winners of the nine categories.

Each of the nominations must be supported by a citation which should not be more than 500 words. Citations should also include your name, address and daytime telephone number, and should arrive not later than noon on Friday, May 13.

Send them to: Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year, Belfast Telegraph, 124 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EB, by email to: or enter online at

Our special ticket package for this black tie event includes a pre-dinner drinks reception, four course meal, wine on the table, entertainment and a goody bag to take home.

For further information, contact Events Consultant Sarah Weir at JPR, tel 028 9076 0066 or email

Tickets cost £60 plus vat (£72) per person or £600 plus vat (£720) for a table of 10.

Payment can be made by credit or debit card, cash or cheque.

Belfast Telegraph

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