He was a certified petrol and diesel mechanic with a toddler and a new baby.

So it was a big leap of faith for John 'Sully' Sullivan to throw in his mechanic's career and train to become a teacher. His father and father-in-law both tried to talk him out of it. But Sully felt the time was right.

He grew up in Wairoa and left school at 15, at the end of what was then fourth form. He became an A grade mechanic and later worked underground on the Kaimai rail tunnel for six years then two years on geothermal drilling rigs at Wairākei before deciding to make the move to teaching after a suggestion from his brother-in-law, a fellow teacher.

"I'd been working for 15 years and I could see that my body wouldn't survive another 40 or 50 years of that and I was looking for an alternative."

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There was some opposition, with Sully's father and father-in-law both against him leaving a stable career to retrain. But with wife Leigh plus their two-year-old son Daniel and three-month-old daughter Toni, the family relocated to Auckland for a year at Teachers' College.

"I applied, but because I didn't have any school qualifications, I sat School Certificate at Training College when I was 30."

Sully landed a job in Tokoroa and two years later moved to Tauhara College in 1981. He is now 70, and has been at the college for 38 years, regularly teaching the children of past students.

When Sully came to Tauhara it was the first year that it had a seventh form [year 13] and there was no metal workshop. The classroom he occupies had been the school's temporary assembly hall. It was his job to start metalwork, as it was then known, at the college.

"It was just boys, there weren't many girls at all. When we started here we tried to create the transition but it took a while for girls to see it as a viable alternative."

Almost halfway through his time at Tauhara Sully took a year off teaching, did up a bus and he and Leigh travelled and worked around New Zealand. When they returned, they bought 4ha near Kinloch where Sully planted grapes and built his own house over about five years. He always has a range of projects on the go and the self-confessed petrolhead is currently working on a Chevy van.

Sully jokes he stayed at Tauhara because nobody else wanted him, but says he has enjoyed working with young people.

"Teaching has evolved and keeps on evolving, it keeps on changing and you have to keep pace with it. If you don't move forward, your kids are left behind so you have to keep changing and finding ideas that spin their wheels. I hope that in some way I've played a part in their growth."

He's seen a lot of changes too, from when metalwork assessment was all theory, to today's NCEA where there is a mixture of practical skills and theory and it is 100 per cent internally assessed, plus many more girls coming through technology and moving into careers such as engineering.

He sees students from year 9 where they learn basic hand tool and machine work skills and a little bit of design, through to year 13 where the students will be given a brief to create a machine that has to have two wheels and power, and given free rein to come up with something of their own design.

"Once you create that and you start to get inside their head about it, they become the driving force behind it all and you can't keep them out of the workshop ... If they have any spare time they will come in and do their work and I think that's really good. It means that they've got involved and they want to do it."

Sully laughs when fellow teacher Ross Kirkwood says Sully is known for his bad language, but agrees he is a straight talker.

"I'm a bit of a dictator as far as my workshop runs. I always tell [students] 'you've got two ways of doing this: my way or my way'. But they don't object to it, they like boundaries, they accept that.

"I wouldn't say I'm bolshy or aggressive but certainly I have standards that I'm not prepared to drop ... you have to create a safe working environment."

Sully has big plans for 2019 — he still has to finish building his house, has a caravan to do up and a goal of driving across America in a yellow Mustang — but expect to see him around the college a day a week in term one while he hands over to his successor. He expects retirement to be anything but relaxing.

"With my cars and my farm and my animals and my grapes I've got enough other interests.

"But I'll miss coming in here all the time, I know that.

"Of all the things, I'll miss the kids, seeing them grow from 13 to an 18 year old and the way they mature and become adults, and I'll miss having that input into their growth and their careers and their futures and things like that. We're in a position where we influence a lot of bodies, a lot of heads.

"It's not a job, it's a career and a passion. You have to believe you're making a difference to their growth and their choices otherwise what's the point?"

Sully will be farewelled at a special assembly at Tauhara College next Thursday, December 13 at 12.30pm and members of the community are welcome.