Principal chalks up 10 years

Queenstown Primary head Fiona Cavanagh. PHOTO: PHILIP CHANDLER
Queenstown Primary head Fiona Cavanagh. PHOTO: PHILIP CHANDLER
Presiding over 600-odd students, about 54 staff and massive campus redevelopment isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But Queenstown Primary principal Fiona Cavanagh still enjoys her job after almost 10 years in the chair. She talks to Philip Chandler about her teaching philosophies and what she gets up to every Thursday and Friday. 

If perceptions are correct that Queenstown Primary School’s (QPS) an excellent school, you have to doff your cap to principal Fiona Cavanagh.

"Ms Cavanagh", as the 600 or so students call her, celebrates 10 years in the hot seat in May, and couldn’t be happier.

"It is a unique environment.

"I’ve probably been at 10 schools, and the children here are the easiest I’ve ever worked with.

"They’re respectful, but that’s because the teachers are amazing."

A major selection criterion, she says, is they need to be kind people.

Cavanagh was raised and schooled in Turangi in the mid-North Island — "a great place with the river, mountains and lake".

Dad was a civil engineer with the Tongariro power scheme and mum was a teacher.

"I just knew [teaching] was my calling. I had wonderful role models and it sounds really nerdy but I loved being at school."

Not that she didn’t also fit in rep softball and netball.

After teachers’ college in Hamilton, Cavanagh’s first teaching role was a one-year posting in Nelson in 1983.

She then shifted to Auckland for five more one-year postings before gaining a deputy principalship at Devonport School in the late 1980s.

"I think I was 27, 28, and I’ve been a leader ever since."

Her first principal’s role was at Glenfield Primary in about 2007, followed by a stint at a low-decile, 600-student school in Mangere.

Cavanagh says she applied for QPS "because I couldn’t stand the humidity in Auckland, and had a house full of whanau that sort of consumed me".

Arriving at the start of 2014’s Term 2, "I was the fourth [head] in about eight years".

"I never thought I’d be here for 10 years, but I love this place, it’s a really nice place to work."

She believes the key is how you treat your students and staff — "they know you’re not threatening and you’re their advocate".

As for the naughty ones, "we always say to them, ‘we really like you but we don’t accept that behaviour"’.

The school has 30-plus nationalities, and about 10% are Maori, Cavanagh says.

She makes no apology for their emphasis on ‘matauranga Maori’, or ‘knowledge of Maori culture’ — and in 2022 took a 14-week sabbatical to research what large Auckland schools did to raise Maori students’ achievement.

QPS students learn te reo from the start, and staff, on reregistration each year, have to demonstrate their understanding of not only the Maori language, but of te ao Maori, or ‘the world of Maori’.

Every Thursday and Friday, Cavanagh leaves deputy principal (DP) Matt Leach to run the school while she works with teachers in leadership roles across all local schools.

Her two areas of focus are matauranga Maori — "how we give our Maori students a sense of belonging" — and raising literacy levels, "especially at transition points".

Like all of Queenstown, she says there are amazing wealth disparities among students’ families, and the school puts on breakfasts and lunches for those who might otherwise miss out.

Cavanagh’s also on the board of Queenstown Lakes Family Services and a panel member for Alexandra-based Oranga Tamariki, "so I know about the underbelly".

As principal, Cavanagh says finance and property are her major roles, which she wasn’t originally trained in.

Property’s been all-consuming over the past 18 months as a large redevelopment programme nears an end, including 11 replacement classrooms and major new outdoor spaces.

"April 29 next year is 50 years of QPS on this site, and it will be totally transformed."

Cavanagh pays credit to her "amazing board of trustees" which — as opposed to the normal business model — she sits on herself, and also to her leadership team and particularly her DP.

"I appointed Matt soon after I got here and that, in itself, means we have a successful school because we’ve got consistency."

At 62, she thinks she’ll stay a couple more years — "and then I want to stay here and do something else, it may not be in education".

Cavanagh says her two daughters are also teachers and she is thrilled one moved to Hawea Flat a year ago with her two children, "so I can be ‘nanny Fi’ to those gorgeous grandchildren every weekend, if I like".

A keen kayaker, she’s also very proud of her "boyfriend", longtime local Andy ‘Swampy’ Earl.