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Mr Preston never sick of school

Greytown School’s ‘rockstar’ deputy principal is retiring, with 250 days’ sick leave intact. When LUCY COOPER caught up with Neil Preston, he was – like he probably often is – in between tasks.

On this occasion, he’d just set up a cricket match at Memorial Park and was going to teach an extension maths group, which he “loves”.

“That’s one of the highlights of the week for me when I get to work with those kids.”

It was a brief glimpse into a day in the life of a man who has dedicated more than 40 years to teaching, with the last 17 at Greytown School.

At the end of this school year, Preston retires to embrace “a different phase” in his life, something he is “looking forward to with a degree of trepidation”.

It’s little wonder he feels some apprehension. On the subject of teaching, he said: “I can’t think of anything else that would give you more of a sense of purpose. What other occupation can you say has such an effect on people’s lives?”

He has “never not wanted to come to work”, even during stressful or challenging times.

“I’ve always wanted to come to school. In fact, I’ve got 250 sick leave days that I’m never going to use because I didn’t want to let people down, and I enjoyed what I did.”

His commitment to the art [and science] of teaching, his patience, and his ability to “see the strengths in people” have made him a popular teacher and mentor at Greytown.

Consequently, he’s “become a little bit of a guru in the classroom”, Greytown School teacher Daniel Salter said.

“I could approach him anytime – he’s incredibly approachable – and he is quite happy just to put aside whatever he’s doing and take that time to listen to an idea that you have, or a concern, or anything that is on your mind.”

Preston also made a great first impression on Paula Weston, Greytown School’s principal.

“He was the first person I met when I came for my interview. He was the person who came out to greet me and straight away just made me feel completely at ease. He’s just a steady pair of hands. He doesn’t panic. He is just able to handle everything.”

Preston is “a local boy” who grew up in Masterton.

Teaching is quite possibly in his DNA – his father taught at Mākoura College – and he honed his craft at several schools in New Zealand and overseas, some of which called upon all his teaching and management skills, and more besides.

At Mākara Model School in Karori, for example, “he was everything”, Preston’s wife Mandy Bassett said.

“He used to get over there at seven in the morning and stoke the boilers and chop the wood. Then he’d be the bus controller, making sure the kids were all doing what they should be doing. Then he was the principal, and he was teaching.”

Over the course of his career, Preston has seen changes in the profession and the expectations that go with it.

When he first started, “the only time I would see the parents was the odd parent interview. And that was it; you didn’t really see them. Whereas now, we’re very, very involved with whānau and the school takes a bigger role, I think, in people’s lives.”

It is a relationship that works both ways, Preston reflected, and brought its own benefits.

“I think the kids get a lot more opportunities now,” he said. “And without the parents’ support, you couldn’t provide all the things that happen in school, like wearable arts.

“Parents are probably busier than they were 40 years ago, but they make time to come in because it’s going to benefit the kids.”

It’s not only the job that has changed. Preston’s teaching style has “developed and evolved” over time, he said.

“We all make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes. I tended to be a little more reactive, whereas now I tend to stop, try to reflect, and think about it. I think I’m someone who is balanced, who tries to get both sides of the story.”

As the father of two adult sons, he tries “to put my parent hat on before I act”, particularly when it comes to his relationship with parents.

“I think I’m a good communicator. I try and communicate as best I can with parents on things that are coming up or things that they need to know. I think to myself, ‘Would I want to know that, as a parent?’”

His style has helped him build rapport with students, becoming what Weston described as a “home base” for many.

“Not a day goes by, whether he’s in class or his office, when there’s not a student going, ‘I need to see Mr Preston’. Anything to do with sport, anything to do with bikes, anything to do with anything, Neil is usually the answer.”

David Savage, a member of the school’s board of trustees, described Preston as a greatly loved “rockstar teacher”.

“Both students and teachers will feel his absence immediately. It’ll be a bit like turning up to discover the school roof is missing, he’s so much a part of this place,” he said.

Greytown is Preston’s longest ‘posting’ over his 42-year career, and he loves the “cool little town” and school.

“The kids are great. There’s a nice feel about the school. I’ve been fortunate to have some great teachers to work with. Great principals. And the parents – they just want what’s best for the kids and that’s really what I want. I want to do the best I can for the kids that are in front of me.”

The process of retiring is, he said, “a little weird. But I’m not sad. No, I feel this is a good time to get out, while I still feel I’ve got something to contribute, you know, that people still come to me for advice, and I can still do my job relatively well.”

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