Our People: Canadian takes over helm at St Margaret’s College

TOP JOB: Diana Patchett will take over as executive principal of St Margaret's College in term three. PHOTO: MARTIN HUNTER

Canadian Diana Patchett will take the helm at St Margaret’s College in just over a week. Bridget Rutherford spoke to her about what she wants to achieve in the role, her love of sport, and growing up in the polar bear capital of the world

When do you start your new role?

I arrived on July 1, and I was shadowing Gillian Simpson [former executive principal] for the last week. School is on a two-week break and in that time we will transition. So when the girls return for the start of term three my role officially begins. I’ve tried to keep a pretty low profile because last week was about Gillian and her farewell.

Why did want to become executive principal of St Margaret’s?

I’m excited to return to single sex education and especially at a leading girls’ school like St Margaret’s. It’s got an incredibly strong reputation, not only in New Zealand, but further afar. It’s a privileged position for me to be in to be promoted into St Margaret’s. I’m excited about the opportunity to contribute to the next generation of women and be a positive role model.

Have you had any previous connections with the school?

This will be the first. I’ve had colleagues who are old girls or have worked at St Margaret’s. It’s a lovely small village, New Zealand.

Will this be the first time you’ve lived in Christchurch?

Yes it will be. I’m looking forward to coming back to a cooler climate and having mountains in the backdrop. I grew up in northern Canada in the land of ice and snow. I was born in Fort Churchill, Manitoba, which is the stepping-off point for polar bear expeditions. Then we moved further north to Yellowknife, the capital of the north-west territories. I lived there for most of my life. At winter, I went to school with a torch and came home with a torch. We would also be blacking out the windows to sleep during summer. I think, if nothing else, it taught me there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. It taught me about not letting the challenges of geography or climate stop you from doing things.

Why did you live up there?

Well my parents are actually both Australian. But they married in the 50s and travelled around Australia and New Zealand then to North America and travelled around. My father worked in the public service and my mother was a teacher. She actually taught at Timaru Girls’ High School in 1960. So teaching is in my genes.

Do you remember any quirky stories from growing up in such an interesting place?

I remember I had long hair growing up and I was quite an active sportswoman. I was a competitive swimmer and I used to wear my hair in plaits. I’d go off to swimming training at the indoor pool in the morning, and then when I went outside, my hair would then freeze in plaits on the way to school. They would just defrost during the course of the day and if I went outside they would freeze again. I would always have wet hair. There were lots of polar bears in Fort Churchill; I’ve got photos of them wandering through the town. When we moved to the far north we mostly got around by light aircraft. I was quite into Girl Guides – my family was quite big into scouts and guides – and the camps we went on were pretty darn adventurous looking back on it. During some camps it was -30 deg C. You won’t hear me complaining about the cold.

Where did your education career begin?

Teaching and learning is part of my genetic make up. My mother and sister are both teachers. I studied two bachelors of science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. My first career was in advertising and marketing. When I started my family, that was when the teaching gene was ignited. I did my post-grad Dip Ed by correspondence. Going through university, I was a swimming instructor and rowing instructor, so the teaching was there in me then. My first teaching position was when I was living in Brisbane.

You’ve lived in Papua New Guinea. How did that come about?

I was going on a trip to Australia and I had a family friend who lived in Port Moresby, so I went to visit and I met my husband Mike. He’s Australian but he was working for the Department of Environment and Conservation. So I cashed in the rest of my trip, I was meant to go to Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, Christchurch, Auckland, Nadi and Honolulu and back to Vancouver, but that was the end of that. I worked in advertising and marketing in Papua New Guinea. Then we moved to Brisbane, I had 20 years there. That’s where I started my teaching career.

When did you move to New Zealand to start working at Kristin School?

I started in Auckland in 2013.

And you mentioned you’re a bit of a sportswoman. Can you fill me in about that?

I played water polo at a national level in Canada. I played until my second year of university. At UBC when you’re registering for classes, you had to go to different faculties to get your papers signed off.

Then you funnelled back into the main auditorium to finish the registration process. It was a great spot for recruiters. The rowing guys came up and approached me and asked whether I would try rowing. At that point I was happy playing water polo, and I said why me? And they said “we’re looking for large athletic women” (laughs). I thought if they were going to recruit, they might need to change the wording. In the end, they got my attention and I tried it out. I went to the national champs. I’m still a keen swimmer and I ride horses as well – that would be my passion, I love trekking so I’m looking forward to trying out the South Island treks.

I’m sure you’ll be watching a lot of school sport in your new role?

I’m looking forward to being on the sideline. I love watching the hockey and netball, so I’m keen to watch the school teams and the Tactix and other sports as well.

You and your husband will move into the principal’s residence on site. Will it be weird living at work?

The commute will be good. I want to be part of the wider Christchurch community as well, though. Having boarders here it will be like having 175 daughters I’ll be able to visit. We left a lifestyle block in north-west Auckland. It was six acres [2.4ha] so we had sheep and horses and a sheep dog, but we’ve re-homed them. I will miss having my horse, but who knows, maybe I could have one somewhere in the future.

You could keep one on the school field couldn’t you?

I’ll see if I can get that past the school board of trustees.

Can you tell me a bit about your kids? Where are they based?

I’m proud as punch of my children – you’re only ever as happy as your least happy child. I have four sons who are all living on the east coast of Australia. My eldest, Max, works in the commercial marine industry, he is 32. Then Harry is 29 and is in Sydney working for surf brand Piping Hot doing the online and social media work. He also volunteers with Take 3 For the Sea, a great global movement to help clean up our oceans. Sam is 27 and is in West End, Brisbane. He’s a musician and a chef. He specialises in vegetarian food. And my youngest, Nelson, is 23 and lives in Byron Bay. He works in adventure tourism. I’d say they will come and visit us.

You mentioned you’re passionate about horse riding. Do you have any other hobbies?

My husband and I are keen outdoors people, so we will go tramping a fair bit and see what the South Island has to offer.

What do you hope to achieve at St Margaret’s? Obviously now a lot of its post-quake rebuild is complete?

It’s got some lovely upward momentum. There’s a lot happening around the Centre for Innovation so I’m looking forward to helping support that side. There are a couple of other stages of the rebuild that are still left to be realised around creative arts and technology. And just maintaining and improving the reputation of St Margaret’s in the community and promoting single sex education, because I think we do it so well.

And finally, at the St Margaret’s old girls’ events, Gillian’s husband David often made the margaritas. Will someone be able to step into that role?

That will not be a problem. I think a cosmopolitan is more my thing, but we’ll see. My husband Mike will take his turn behind the bar. And I know Mike is looking forward to meeting the community and getting involved.