It's not quite true to say that Sandra Jenkins has fully retired after more than 45 years of work in education. She is no longer a teacher or principal, but continues to work on an international project in learning space design, albeit whilst supposedly putting her feet up with her Philip, her husband of 47 years, in Cooper's Beach.

She was is now a Member of the NZ Order of Merit, an honour that she said was exciting and humbling.

"Being recognised by your peers is a most incredible thing," she said.

"It's quite emotional really. It's something that happens to other people."

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Jenkins entered teacher training (at Ardmore) at the age of 16, and at 19 was teaching, her memories ranging from influencing the design of learning spaces to distinctly Kiwi cuisine.

Her first school had been in Napier, where the father of MP Anne Tolley, with whom she went to school at Colenso College, was the headmaster, but it was a school "out the back of Waikaremoana" that provided some of her most vivid memories, including a snowstorm that closed the school on her second day and feasting on barbecued lambs' tails.

The boys got the tails, she said, and the girls organised the seasoning and tomato sauce. And there was no room to sit in the staffroom, because it was full of freezers that in turn were full of tails.

In the early days, she said, probationary assistants (as new teachers were known) were "left to get on with it, sink or swim," and that was a system that suited her well. Teachers were free to innovate, and more importantly perhaps to build on each others' strengths. It was all about working in teams, for teachers and students alike.

She met her future husband in Napier, and the couple duly moved north, and several schools in South Auckland. In her fourth year she was seconded to the Education Department, which exposed her to people who would become leaders in education, contributing to her developing skill-set, particularly in terms of teaching at-risk children, and the philosophy that would continue to evolve over her career.

Her move north began at Kohukohu, where she was the principal for almost a decade, followed by a similar stint at Mangonui, "both lovely schools."

With her four children having flown the coop she returned to Auckland, ending her career at Freemans Bay, where she was told that a new hall was needed but set about building an entirely new $19 million school.

Education and the world children inhabit had changed beyond recognition over her lifetime, she added.

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The roll at Freemans Bay had comprised more than 60 nationalities, many of whom did not have English as their first language, and everyone was expected to embrace and respect that diversity.

The teaching environment had changed too, very much for the better, and that was a field in which she had played a leading role, and incorporated at Freemans Bay. Her citation noted that she had presented at various international conferences and discussions around the world, including in Australia, China, Denmark, India and the United Kingdom, between 2012 and 2019.

She was a Fellow of the Auckland Primary Principals' Association, chaired the Far North Principals' Association from 1993 to 2005, had been a representative or an appointed member of the New Zealand Educational Institute, the Principal Council, Rural Teaching Principal Network, APPA and the Auckland City Centre Network. She was a volunteer NZEI industrial advocate for schools in the Far North from 1993 to 2005, and became an Associate of NZEI in 2005. She was a foundation member of the Global School Alliance from 2012 to 2020.

She received the School Library Association of New Zealand's Principal's Award in 2019, in recognition of successfully developing a school library and promoting excellent library design to support learning, received a Waitemata Good Citizens' award in 2019 and was a Kiwi Bank Auckland Local Hero earlier this year.

Her thoughts on Friday, however, were more focused on finally being able to share the royal honour secret she had been keeping for so long, and maybe bestowing a royal pardon or two upon her children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. She was also pondering slipping down the road (in Wellington) to see if she could find a tiara.