A Rotorua teacher who has taught thousands of children over nearly 60 years has been censured by the Teaching Council's Disciplinary Tribunal for slapping a student and pushing another. Journalist Kelly Makiha talks to Val Cooney about her remorse and why she will continue to teach, despite being 79.
Val Cooney flicks through her CV of teaching awards, newspaper clippings and certificates acknowledging thousands of hours teaching and coaching children.
At 79, she's spent nearly 60 years in the teaching profession but it halted at John Paul College in 2018. She has now been censured for serious misconduct after slapping one student and pushing another in October and December 2017.
But despite her age, she says she's not willing to leave the job she loves just yet and instead wants to keep working to ensure she ends her career on a high.
The Teaching Council's Disciplinary Tribunal's decision, released yesterday , said Cooney was often used at John Paul College to help other teachers when they were having difficulty with managing students' difficult behaviour.
On October 25, 2017, three students were sent to her class because of their disruptive behaviour. While she was dealing with them, one of the students started to laugh. Cooney slapped the student across his cheek and the student started to cry.
Cooney said she immediately regretted her actions and apologised to the student in the presence of another staff member. She engaged in a restorative justice meeting with the student and his family.
Cooney thought the matter was resolved and would not be taken further, the decision said, but the school initiated an employment disciplinary process.
On December 4, Cooney was teaching folk dancing and took exception to a student's unco-operative behaviour and unwillingness to find a female dance partner.
She put her hand on the student's shoulder and pushed him towards the girls in the class. The student pulled away and told Cooney to "get stuffed".
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Cooney acknowledged the seriousness of both incidents and expressed remorse for her actions.
She said she was under stress at the time of both incidents by having the responsibility of disciplining students referred to her by other teachers and on a personal level by dealing with her husband's illness.
Her penalty is she is censured, a finding of serious misconduct is recorded and Cooney was told to undergo professional development in regards to classroom discipline and stress management. A stand-down period was not required. She was ordered to pay costs of $458.
In the lead-up to the tribunal's findings being released, Cooney agreed to talk with the Rotorua Daily Post about her career.
She said she was only 4 when she knew she was going to be a teacher.
"I used to make my dolls sit there like they were in a lesson."
Born and bred in Tauranga, she went to Ardmore Teachers' College in 1959 before being selected to do specialised PE training in Dunedin in 1961.
She started her first job at Rotorua Girls' High School in 1962 and later left to have children.
She wasn't gone long before returning with all three young children in tow, where she said they pretty much "grew up in the grounds of Girls' High" while she taught the kids in the gym.
In 1973, she left to teach at Malfroy Primary for 10 years, followed by three years at Maeroa Intermediate School in Hamilton - at a time when her daughter, Nicky, was doing diving training in Hamilton (she later went on to win bronze at the Commonwealth Games).
Cooney returned to Rotorua in 1987 to do relief teaching at McKillop College which later led to a fulltime job at John Paul College.
"My classroom was my home."
Cooney said she admitted losing her cool during the first incident and she sincerely apologised to the child.
However, she believed the second incident had been blown out of proportion.
"I loved the kids and they loved me. I will growl at the kids but the next day I make a point of going to see how they are, asking them something about something else. I never hold grudges and some teachers do.
"I can't walk down the street now without someone coming up to me and giving me a hug and saying 'Hello Mrs Cooney'. Half the time I don't recognise them."
Cooney said she was sad almost 60 years of a flawless record had been marred but she was determined to put it behind her and end her career on a high.
She was currently employed at Rotorua Girls' High School on a part-time basis.
Principal Sarah Davies said Cooney was helping with a PE class with another teacher on a short-term basis and she appreciated the help she had been able to provide.
Cooney admitted she was a no-nonsense teacher who had one rule in her class, and that was to have manners.
"If you had good manners, you won't get into trouble."
And while teaching through an era when corporal punishment was the method of discipline, Cooney said: "I'm not known as a violent teacher".
However, she said there were plenty of parents over the years who told her to "give my kid a clip over the ear if they play up" - something she said she never did.
Cooney spent most of her teaching years coaching most sports - something which stemmed from her own sporting career having played U21 Auckland representative cricket and netball, and being in the Otago netball team in 1961 (in the same team as former Silver Ferns coach Lois Muir).
At the age of 15, she was the youngest woman in New Zealand to become a national outdoor basketball referee. Among other acknowledgements is winning the 2008 National Supreme Watties Volunteer Coach of the Year.
But coaching gymnastics was what she was known for most and she took about 40 children at John Paul College at every interval and lunchtime, except Friday intervals, until she resigned.
Last month she attended the professional development course – which was part of the tribunal's requirements to keep teaching.
She said the course was designed to teach teachers how to deal with difficult children, something which she said she had led courses on in the past.
However, she said she was willing to do what needed to get back in the classroom.
"I do want to be back teaching. I know I have a talent for it and I love the kids and I know I can do it."