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A life in education honoured

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 5/06/2016 Sarah Robson

Dame Karen Sewell has always loved teaching.

And now her 50-year career in the education sector has been recognised in this year's Queen's Birthday honours, with the former Ministry of Education boss being made a dame companion of the New Zealand order of merit.

Dame Karen fell into teaching "not quite by accident".

When she finished high school in the early 1960s, there were really only two career paths open to young women: teaching or nursing.

After completing her degree and a diploma, Dame Karen headed into the classroom.

"After four weeks I realised what fun it was, how much I enjoyed it, and I've stayed in it ever since," she told NZ Newswire.

As well as spending time as both a teacher and a principal, Dame Karen has held a number of high-profile roles in the education sector at various times: chief executive of the Ministry of Education, chief executive of the Education Review Office and acting chief executive of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

That's meant Dame Karen has been at the coalface through some of the more controversial changes to New Zealand's education system.

She led the implementation of national standards and a new school curriculum, and was brought in to NZQA when trust and confidence in NCEA was at an all-time low.

In 2013, she was the education minister's representative in Christchurch as decision-making around the post-quake rebuilding of schools got underway.

"Working with those principals and teachers in such difficult situations was a real privilege," she said.

"I will never forget the resilience that they showed and the determination of principals and teachers to do the best that they could for the kids in their schools, even when they were dealing with issues themselves - their homes were destroyed, their kids were at schools that had been closed."

But Dame Karen's five-decade career in education isn't over yet.

"Any time I've gone into a school, or gone into a classroom, or talked with young people, I'm energised to go and do it while I think I can help," she said.

"I'm amazed by the resilience of young people and their ability to learn and adapt, their ability to care and support each other.

"For the country that I want to live in, the future is dependent on them and I think we have an education system that prepares them for their future."

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