As a teacher, a principal once told Pat Newman he would get him out of the profession.

But that didn't happen.

More than 45 years after starting as a teacher trainee at Hamilton Teachers College, the Whangārei principal - who has developed a reputation for being outspoken - has received the NZEI Te Riu Roa Honorary Fellow - Union Activism award, which only 43 others have received since 1971.

Newman, principal of Hora Hora Primary School and president of the Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association, said he was close to tears as he walked across the stage at the annual NZEI conference in Rotorua to receive the top honour.

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"I know it sounds funny but it was extremely humbling. When I read the nomination I didn't realise it was me. You don't actually set out to do things, they just happen."

Newman started teacher training in 1973. He followed in the footsteps of his siblings - all of whom became teachers.

"The other thing, to be quite honest, is that I'd always wanted to run a school. I didn't get along very well at school and I always wanted to run a school that was nothing like the ones I went to."

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In his first year of teaching he was placed at Opotiki Primary and the following two years he taught at Pakuranga Intermediate.

After that he had to hunt for his own job and applied for about 80 before starting at Bay of Islands Intermediate in 1979.

His 30-year principal career started in 1982 when he was seconded to Tutamoe.

In 1999 he started at Hora Hora Primary School and planned to stay there for five years.

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"There was always something in my mind to do at school here and you couldn't go until you'd finished it. Bit like why I haven't retired, there's still stuff to do."

Newman has been a member of NZEI since he started training in 1973 but said he really became involved in his second year of teaching.

"I'd always been a person who never knew when to shut up. I was the editor of the school magazine of my high school and managed to get it banned twice because I refused to retract stories."

He said his parents played a huge part in who he is today - both his parents left school at 12 and his mum, who was orphaned at 9, stayed at home while his dad worked two jobs.

"I am who I am because of them. They installed in all of us, the fact that you had a responsibility to our society, greater than just looking after yourself," he said in his speech.

But despite the honours and pats on the back, Newman's favourite things about being a principal are simple.

"There's a whole lot. But probably walking out into the playground and a 5-year-old will come and give you a big hug. That tells you why you're doing the job."