Big read: Class act

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

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Tauranga Girls' College's deputy principal Leonie Summerville is retiring after nearly 30 years. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga Girls' College's deputy principal Leonie Summerville is retiring after nearly 30 years. Photo/George Novak

"If you can't say something good, keep your mouth shut."

That's the philosophy Leonie Summerville lives by and it shows.

She's unapologetically enthusiastic about her job, her students, skiing, her car, the way she dresses.

Actually, life in general, really. An hour and 17 minutes of conversation and not a single negative comment passes her perfectly pinked lips.

From the moment you set eyes on Leonie, in the halls of Tauranga Girls' College (TGC), it's very clear that nothing the deputy principal does is by accident. From her platinum blonde bob, to her pink silk tunic and black pencil skirt. Her black flatforms show off manicured toenails that match her top and lipstick. Even the diamantes on her cardigan sparkle in the same way as those that adorn her watch.

I think it's important to present professionally in the job ... It is probably an unnecessary extravagance at times, but I do enjoy it.
Leonie Summerville

Leonie started at TGC in September of 1987 and has built somewhat of a reputation ever since, partly due to how she presents herself.

"I think it's important to present professionally in the job ... It is probably an unnecessary extravagance at times, but I do enjoy it," she says.

"I've probably got enough now to not buy more, although I would rather save now for a ski holiday than save to buy [something]."

There are rumours she flies to Europe every summer to restock her wardrobe. When asked about it, Leonie laughs.

"No, what I do is in January every year I go on a ski holiday either to Europe for three weeks, or to preferably Colorado, but somewhere in North America."

Though just because she's there to ski doesn't stop her indulging in a spot of shopping if the opportunity arises. She bought two pairs of shoes on her most recent trip.

"I was on a skiing day, in a beautiful place called Meribel, and I spied a pair of lovely boots in a ski shop. So I bought them and I had to ski the rest of the day with them in a plastic bag in my backpack."

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Trained as a physical education teacher at Otago University, sport is a constant theme throughout Leonie's life, with different codes weaving in and out over time. From playing representative netball at university, to her role as rugby mum when her son was a teen, to being a key support for the school's many sport teams - if there's a sideline, it's quite likely Leonie's there (or been there).

"I try to go to as much as I can."

She's never let societal norms or expectations get in the way of her love of sport, managing the Dannevirke High School under-15 rugby team in the mid-1980s while she was the school's senior mistress.

"We brought a team up here to play in an under-15 tournament in Tauranga," she says, and one of the other team's coaches said, "I saw your name on there but I thought it must be a printing error because how could a woman be the manager of a rugby team?".

She relished the challenge of being senior mistress at Dannevirke High School, where she started in 1984, as a single mother after her marriage ended, right when the feminism of the 1970s started to have an effect here, she says.

By the time she took her role at Tauranga Girls' College, in 1987, her title was deputy principal. "It was about that time that people realised that 'senior mistress' [implied] 'does that mean that you do the flowers and the afternoon teas' and things like that or are you in an educational role? And of course those people before me were in an educational role."

Her eyes light up when she talks about the opportunities for TGC students then, and now.

"It was a time when girls in education were starting to believe in themselves and there were many, many more opportunities."

She says the diversity of post-school options changed drastically.

"It was an exciting time because you could see these really wonderful kids who were heading for all sorts of things. I think for some teachers it became a worry, in that they could see wonderful potential teachers going to all sorts of other places, like into law, into science, into medicine, into flying aeroplanes... it's been a really exciting time of social change."

While Leonie calls herself a feminist, she's quick to point out that she's not anti-men.

"I do really believe that there is a place for both men and women in virtually all professions, but especially so in teaching."

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That said, her experience of returning to work at Matamata College after her son was born wasn't overly modern.

"I certainly met a degree of disapproval, not a lot but a degree of disapproval, when I came back teaching when my son was only four months old."

She says she returned to work because the school wanted her and the opportunity was there.

"There weren't any hard feelings on my husband's part at the time ... And I liked the work. I'd rather go to school to teach."

Leonie's careful to point out that's not a dig at stay-at-home mums, either. The classroom was just her preference. That ability to express her opinion, in a positive way, without offending anyone, is part of what makes Leonie so loveable.

As TGC principal Pauline Cowens puts it - "She sees the good in everyone".

Or, as Leonie says, "you can say who you are, but you've got to be careful in how you demonstrate what you believe".

"The best reward you can get for being positive is to see kids who maybe gave you a hard time or were a bit of a handful when they were in Year 9 actually lasting to Year 13 and being successful. Some of the terrors, you have got to see the best in everybody. You've got to try to do that."

Pauline says Leonie's ability to see the best in everyone is what makes Leonie so memorable for her students.

"One child said 'Mrs Summerville does not have an unkind bone in her body' and kids who are in trouble at school, they will say 'oh Mrs Summerville cares about me, Mrs Summerville will look after me'. I've never, ever heard staff members or students be able to say anything negative about Leonie.

"When you're in a difficult situation, Leonie will always bring it back to something positive, something that makes the person feel better, something to restore who they are. And I've seen her do that time and time again."

As deputy principal, Leonie sees the best and worst of the school's students.

"I think the hardest part is when you've reached the end of the line with a student. And you know that for whatever reason we haven't been able to reach them," Leonie says.

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It's at this point you realise just how much Leonie cares. She tears up as she describes how hard she works with the social agencies in the region to create opportunities for those students to go into when they leave school.

"Some of the best stories I've got out of times like that have been when I've gone somewhere to have my hair cut or get my nails done, or been at The Warehouse or somewhere, and I've seen someone who's in their early 20s and has actually got themselves right," she says.

"You know seeing people succeed, despite what went wrong for them at school, later, it's really good."

Her love of enabling people to succeed, be it students or teachers, is what gets Leonie out of bed and at school by 7 every morning. She also loves the variety of working in a school.

"Sometimes you're growling, sometimes you're really pleased and you're encouraging and sometimes you're just proud because girls and teachers have done great things."

Leonie is also a big supporter of music and drama. She regularly buys students' artwork, which proudly hangs in both her office and her home, alongside snaps of her latest skiing trip.

Her car also makes the list of things she loves, though it's also one explained by her love of snow.

"The girls think it's a boy racer car. They say 'Mrs Summerville, your car's a boy racer' and I say 'is it?'."

Tauranga Girls' College's deputy principal Leonie Summerville and her 'boy racer' car. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga Girls' College's deputy principal Leonie Summerville and her 'boy racer' car. Photo/George Novak

She admits, with a wry smile, she knew the Subaru WRX station wagon was racy when she bought it - "It goes up mountains without chains, it gets you into the top carpark at Ruapehu on a Subaru day and it's just a great little car for somebody that loves skiing."

She's a Subaru woman through and through, having previously owned an Impreza Gravel Express, with a WRX turbocharged engine. She's been teaching driver education for the past few years.

"I've learnt a lot in being the driver education teacher."

Leonie became a teacher in the first place because she loved school so much.

"I've almost never stopped. I absolutely loved school. In my childhood I went to school on a day when my mother was almost certain I had measles. And I said 'I'm going'. And I got sent home shortly afterwards," she says.

Her early love of learning has clearly lasted well into her seventh decade, and is what's kept her satisfied in her role.

"I just love this job so much I've been perfectly happy in it." Her compassion is what makes her such an effective teacher and leader.

"You have to be really onto it with people who are feeling a bit lost or who are a bit different. You've got to actually understand and maybe actually try and find out why and try to help. We're learning all the time in that area."

Even when asked if she feels as though she's sacrificed anything for her career, her answer is still that of a cloud's silver lining, the lining being her four granddaughters who live with her son and daughter-in-law in the house below her.

"You do wonder whether a marriage break-up occurs because you're so career-orientated, but you can't let that [be your focus]. I've got a wonderful son, who has a fantastic family ... so I've got this lovely, wonderful extended family."

A colleague of hers says teaching keeps you youthful and looking at Leonie it's hard to disagree. She has a spark for life and a cheeky youthfulness that belies her age.

"I don't feel I've missed out on anything," she says decidedly.

And while she will miss the students when she finishes up at the end of the month, she'll still have her eye on the local education sector. She won't pick up any relief work or continue teaching as such, but says she'd love to work with the Tauranga Moana Attendance Service as an attendance advisor in future.

In the meantime, while retirement will be her focus, you can be sure her trademark love of life will continue.

"I think I need to step back for a while and just re-evaluate in terms of getting plenty of exercise and go from there," she says.

And you'd be pretty safe to assume by exercise, she means skiing, as there's Aspen in January to plan for, of course.

"I've already saved enough money so that I can go, even though I'm retired."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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