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Fifty-two years later the retiring Kavanagh College principal still remembers the thrill and the terror of it all.
"One day a nun came into the classroom and said, 'Paul Ferris, go and teach Sister Carmel's class," he recalls. "I asked, 'For how long?' and she said, 'I'll tell you when she is well again'. Eight school days later, she came back."
Ferris was at a Catholic school that had no money for relief teachers and no work had been set for the more than 35 six-year-olds he had been left in charge of.
"I had to think of that on my feet," he says. "So we did maths, poetry and religious education for a week. Those poor kids must have suffered dreadfully but they might have enjoyed the youthful enthusiasm for it all too."
One of the longest-serving school principals in the country, Ferris has headed the New Zealand Secondary Principals Association and been at the forefront of initiatives in education.
Six years ago, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and making the most of what he thought might be his last days.
Last year, when he received one of the most prestigious awards in Catholic education, he said it proved his philosophy that every day above ground is a bonus.
On the day of this interview, he emerges from his orderly office to find two pupils sitting outside his door.
"Are you here for a good reason?" he asks one youth, who looks uncomfortable. "Oh, you're not in trouble are you?"
The second boy does not look well: "Are you feeling better John? Are you going home then? Is the headache in the front or the back?" he asks, telling the youth to give him a finger so he can show him an acupunture point. Tall and imposing, Ferris needs to bend over to execute the manoeuvre. Having spent most of his life in Southland, he still rolls his R's.
At one stage, the 62-year-old turned down a job offer in a bigger school. Part of the reason was that he loved the culture of Kavanagh College, a Catholic school with 870 pupils, he says. But he also believes there is an "optimum size" for a secondary school and it is under 1000 pupils.
He likes to walk around the school and greet kids by name, know what their parents do and talk about what is happening at home: "Valuing them as individuals is critical".
Ferris says he also tends to be informal and that teachers who use humour with children have few issues with discipline "because kids love to laugh".
"I'm very direct and I like to work on relationships more than authority. But if relationships don't work, I will be authoritative."
Throughout his career, he retained the passion for teaching that he first had a taste of as a "scrawny kid" at St Mary's Primary School, in Gore.
"When I was a student, I always saw school as being very repetitive ... In the 30-odd years of my principalship, nothing has ever been the same," he says.
"But one of the great enthusiasms I have is that we're still asking the questions, `How can we be better and how can we engage a learner to be more successful?'."
One way to encourage pupils to take responsibility for their learning is to give them some control and choice, he says, adding many have to fit studies around sport, cultural activities and paid employment.
At Kavanagh, for example, self-directed learning in years 12 and 13 allows some pupils to choose where they spend their study periods.
Pupils who do not yet know how to manage their study time are given a red card and tutored in a classroom. Those who can manage certain subjects independently receive an orange card and can use the study hour to work in various areas of the school, such as the library or computer suites. Those managing their learning well get a green card and permission to work where they like.
"Getting time to go away and delve into things that are important to them or that hold their interest is critical for them staying engaged," he says.
"So sometimes these kids might stay at home for the first two periods of a morning and work in their room, then come to school. Or they might go downtown to the gym but come back and work later.
"And the evidence is showing us the green-card kids are working very hard at all times of the day and night. We know this because they log on to koodle [the school's online learning blackboard] to get resources or to talk to teachers and leave messages right around the clock."
Ferris saw the benefits of pupils managing their own study when he visited independent-learning schools in Canada in 2008. Teachers were not stressed because they spent more time coaching individuals in small groups than they did working with large classes. And pupils had their needs met more quickly without the distraction of those who did not want to be in the classroom.
While independent learning is currently offered at Kavanagh for one period in every seven, with the "synthesis of technology", it could eventually be half the time, he says.
A $400,000 upgrade of wiring being undertaken at the school will give it high-speed broadband and the ability to podcast lessons and publish resources that are instantly available online 24 hours a day. A pupil missing a lesson because of a sports fixture will be able to download the material that night.
However, the technology needs to work in a way that keeps pupils in a school culture: "I'm not talking about correspondence learning when you stay at home and learn in isolation. We all know we need to be in communities and that communities support and encourage us."
Choice and consequences are ideas he thinks should be talked about more in schools.
"New Zealand schools generally don't do a great deal in terms of consequences," he says.
"Reprimands have gone from being quite punitive to having the effect on some kids of a smack on the hand with a wet dishcloth ... There needs to be some way of showing kids that if you make a choice that isn't a good choice, there is actually a consequence to it."
New Zealand secondary schools are too quick to allow pupils to progress to the next year, "whether they've engaged in the learning of the material or not", he claims.
"It's straight social promotion - if you're 15, you're in year 11."
"In Canada, if you didn't pass a particular year, you stayed in that year. [The pupils] felt that was one of the most scary things in their lives and it became a hugely motivating factor."
While promoting children by standards rather than by age would have implications for New Zealand society, Ferris is no stranger to controversy. NCEA was introduced in 2004, when he was president of the New Zealand Secondary Principals' Association.
NCEA with its broad bands of achievement was criticised for being politically correct and confusing. But he says it was not hard to see the logic of it, given that under the previous system the Government planned to fail 50% of pupils in school certificate and often scaled marks in university entrance.
"In some years, UE science exams officially had pass rates of about 25% but were scaled up to get a pass rate of 50%. Effectively people were entering university with very poor competency levels and there were countless examples like that."
When Ferris himself was at university, his late father - who had a bike and lawnmower business - wanted to know if he was going to leave school or not.
One thing that stands out for him is that in his 19 years at Kavanagh, five head or deputy head boys, as well as many girls, have gone on to become teachers.
"It's not such a popular profession so for me to be able to model to them the satisfaction of being a teacher and the success and pleasure it can bring you, is critically important.
"You don't need to be a rocket scientist. You just have to have empathy and care that young people will be safe and build a better place. They're quite high ideals," he says, with a self-deprecating laugh, "but they actually get you going."
Board of trustees chairwoman Barbara Wilkins says Ferris created a culture of excellence and positive relationships at all levels in the school. He was a proponent of a broad education, knew almost every pupil by name and enjoyed seeing them develop as individuals.
He had also been a pioneer in many new educational initiatives, from self-directed learning to long-distance visual learning.
"He'll be very sadly missed in the school ... In fact, when we asked the [school] community what qualities they would like us to look for in choosing a new principal, the response was invariably, 'Someone just like Paul'."
"Being a principal is like herding cats," Ferris says, smiling. "Cats aren't animals that naturally follow directions and nor are teachers or adolescents. But as a cat is drawn to things like warmth, shelter and food, so too are teachers and kids drawn to systems that encourage them to participate, that reward them and recognise them - that meet their basic general needs."
Although he did not find the job especially stressful, his cancer diagnosis made him realise he was not balancing his life particularly well, he says, adding he put in 70 hours a week but in the past few years tried to avoid working at night.
Found to have an aggressive form of bowel cancer, Ferris had radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, quickly losing 20kg in weight.
"It's hugely focusing," he says of such an experience. "We got the impression that life [for me] was going to be quite short so we sold our home in Queenstown, which was going to be our retirement home, and all sorts of other things to ensure things were sorted financially for what might have been a widow's life.
"That didn't happen thankfully, and we've moved on but it's given us an appreciation for what we really value."
His wife Marie and their six children had to be number one and he had not always given them that status "because the job eats so much of your time".
Convinced he is cancer-free, Ferris does have a physical reminder of the illness in that he is now an ostomy patient and wary of taking up skiing again. However, he enjoys cooking French-style food, entertaining friends at home, walking, boating and driving off-road in Central Otago.
Faith is also important to him: "I love nature and when I'm among the mountains, I'm inspired by the ... creativity and awesomeness of God".
Given that love of family and the outdoors, it is perhaps not surprising that he and his wife will soon move to Glenorchy, where nine first-cousins have houses.
Not ready to retire completely, he will work as a reviewer in Catholic schools, plans to write a book about self-directed learning and hopes the Minister of Education will find work for him on an educational board.
In some ways, being a principal has been like managing a large corporation, he says, noting the college spends up to $9 million a year, including teachers' salaries.
"But the profit line for us is not about money. It's about a product you can't actually see and measure until adulthood."
When he left school yesterday, he took with him half a dozen letters written over the years by pupils who had been in trouble. Their resolve to change had been a "very powerful motivation" for him to carry on doing what he had been doing, he says.
"Sixteen years ago we expelled a boy from the school for being disruptive and a bad influence. Last year I met him on Facebook. He started off by saying, 'God are you still alive?' Then he proceeded to tell me exactly how we had helped him."
Being expelled made him realise the world did not owe him anything and he had to take responsibility for his own life, said the former pupil, now a successful businessman in Australia.
"What he's saying is he knows we didn't like what we were doing but that if we hadn't done it for him, he wouldn't be where he is today. And now he's asking if his son can come to the school.
"Those are the things that are more important than anything."
• Was one of the country's longest-serving school principals, having headed primary, intermediate and secondary schools in Otago and Southland for the past 35 years.
• Retired yesterday from Kavanagh College, a Catholic co-educational school in the centre of Dunedin with 870 pupils, where he has been principal for 19 years.
• After graduating from Dunedin Teachers College as top scholar in 1969, he began his teaching career at Kew School, in Invercargill.
• Received the Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand Leadership in Education Award in 2006, and life membership of the association this year.
• Received the New Zealand Catholic Education Office Laureate Award in 2009.
• Was president of the New Zealand Intermediate Principals' Association in 1989-90 and president of the Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand (Spanz) from 2003 to 2005.
• Has held national leadership roles in the New Zealand Qualifications Authority Reference Group, the Secondary Futures Reference Group and the New Zealand Catholic Secondary Principals Executive.
• Has published work on financial management for principals, strategic planning, national administration guidelines and international students, and been a keynote speaker at conferences in New Zealand, Australia and Brazil.
• Was founding chairman of the principals partnership for secondary schools in Dunedin, involving the delivery of special education and support to schools in the city.
• Was founding principal of DunedinNet. New Zealand's first urban videoconferencing teaching network allows pupils from 11 secondary schools to study subjects which are not easy to access in their own schools due to class sizes or timetable clashes. Pupils can also take courses such as psychology or equestrian studies, which are not traditional school subjects.
• Is married to Marie Ferris, who retired yesterday as head of music at Kavanagh.
• The new principal of Kavanagh College is Tracy O'Brien, who has been principal of Cullinane College, in Wanganui, for the past eight years.