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South Auckland primary school in mourning after much-loved principal dies in her sleep

Mary Afemata

Students at Rongomai Primary, in Otara, perform a powerful haka to say goodbye

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

A South Auckland primary school and its community are in shock after their much-loved principal and leader died in her sleep.

Paeariki Mataroa-Johnson, 51, died unexpectedly in the early hours of Monday morning. The exact cause of death is yet to be determined, her family says.

Known to her students as Whaea Paeariki, she had over 20 years of teaching experience working in schools around South Auckland; including Rongomai Primary School, in Ōtara, where she returned to take the role of principal in 2016.

At a special ceremony held at the school yesterday, children and staff gathered to say goodbye and performed a powerful and tearful haka as the hearse carrying their principal slowly drove past.

As the hearse neared the school gates, the school started to sing Ua Fa’afetai - a Samoan song expressing gratitude and thanks, acknowledging someone’s hard work or achievement. It is a poignant and emotional moment for many.

‘It feels like a bad dream’

Her eldest daughter, Levi Johnson, paid tribute to a beautiful mum not just to her, but to everyone.

“It honestly feels like a bad dream. She was a great woman. She was influential and I don’t think she realised how influential she was.

Levi Johnson holds a photo of her mother, Paeariki Mataroa-Johnson. Photo / Mary Afemata

Johnson said her mother, who was proud of her Rarotongan roots, helped to establish the school’s Cook Islands bilingual unit to help students connect to their culture and understand their identity.

Her mum was also known for her love of bright colours and often wore ‘ei katu - flower crowns often worn in Rarotonga.

Be proud of your roots, be proud to be from Ōtara

“If we don’t know our culture, then she made the opportunity for them to learn,” Johnson said of her mother.

“I know through Rongomai and what Mum has set up, so many of those kids who don’t speak [Cook Islands Māori] or understand have learned so much about their culture without realising it, through singing, dancing and stories.”

Rongomai School principal Paeariki Mataroa-Johnson pictured at the school late last year. Photo / Michael Craig

Johnson says her mum had a big heart, accepting everyone from all walks of life without judgment.

“She would always validate, like, no matter how you were feeling, she allowed you to feel that. And she would always make people feel and myself feel validated and loved.”

Her mother was her comfort and she knew she could always rely on her; and it will be the little things she will miss the most about her mum, she said.

Karl Vasau, of the Pasifika Principal’s Association, said it was a huge shock and loss to the local South Auckland community.

“In order for anyone to be successful in teaching, you must first love the children and the people you work with, but also love them equally,” he said of his old colleague.

“Her love for her job, for her community, for her family and for her colleagues was just unconditional - absolutely on tap when you needed it. And that’s just a testament to the way she was raised, to her beautiful husband [and] to her family.”

Christina Talimalo-Stanley, a member of the school’s Board of Trustees, said Mataroa-Johnson always made sure the needs of the children and families were met.

Staff members of Rongomai Primary School in Otara carry the casket of school principal Whaea Paeariki Mataroa-Johnson. Photo / Mary Afemata

“Her work ethic was always professional yet still had that heart for the community and tamariki - especially in Ōtara, because she was raised in Ōtara.”

The principal wanted their students to be proud to be from Ōtara, South Auckland.

“She made sure that the identity and culture were always celebrated - you celebrate it every day.”

Mataroa-Johnson will be laid to rest tomorrow. Her family has asked that mourners wear bright island wear and ‘ei katu, as those were her favourite.

She is survived by her husband Phillip and their four children and two grandchildren.

Hero image: Children and staff at Rongomai Primary School in Otara, South Auckland, gather to say goodbye to their principal, Paeariki Mataroa-Johnson, who died this week. Photo / Mary Afemata

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