For Lynley Allison, teaching students resilience is just as important as teaching them the curriculum.
“I think kids today, with the digital age, expect a lot and find it hard to understand that you still have to work hard to get places,” she said.
She says Kaipaki School is exceptional – “you’ve got kids that are living on farms, so they do know how to work hard and they do get out and enjoy the outdoors”.
She said in the majority in the last 20-plus years, with the town schools, there’s not as much participation in sports, or drive.
“I feel part of my job in the classroom is to instil a work ethic and build resilience within these kids.”
And, after everything she’s been through, there’s perhaps no one better equipped to do it.
When Lynley first arrived at rural Kaipaki School in 2020, she told her students she had a “robot leg” because a shark had bitten off her real one.
“She told us this whole story and most of the boys believed it and it was really funny,” said Nina Balsom, who was in year 5 at the time and is now in year 8.
“And then she told us the real story. She was upfront, but that was a good thing, because if she hadn’t there would have been rumours and questions.”
Lynley, 51, was five when doctors diagnosed her with Perthes disease, a childhood condition affecting the hip joint.
Swimming was the only physical activity she was allowed to do, apart from walking, until she hit puberty and was finally allowed to test her hips on a rowing machine.
Meanwhile, she was helping to care for her mother, who regularly suffered debilitating bouts of ill health.
“My brother and I both grew up seeing a really sick mum,” she said. “And then she passed away when I was 20. She was 46. We lost other family members around that time as well. So that also builds resilience.”
Finally, when Perthes disease had run its course and Lynley was allowed to get into sport in her early teens, she “made up for lost time, big time”.
She began with rowing, eventually becoming one of Westlake Girls High School’s first U19 winners of the women’s equivalent of the Maadi Cup in the late-1980s.
She trained as a teacher in Auckland and got her first job at Browns Bay School in 1996 and three years later put her hips to the test by running the London marathon.
Next, she took on triathlon, joining the North Harbour Tri Club and winning her first age-group ironman title in Hawaii in 2001. She turned professional the following year and went on to win Idaho’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2004 after finishing second at Ironman New Zealand.
“It was almost like I had a point to prove that I could do something physical,” she said.
But, in her thirties, arthritis struck.
By the time she was 36, both her hips had been replaced, abruptly halting her sporting career and simultaneously ending her dream of joining the police force.
But she resumed running, swimming and cycling and was on the start line of Ironman New Zealand in 2014.
Back pain forced her to pull out of the event part way through. Two months later, doctors discovered an infection in her spine, which had eaten away at the L5 vertebrae in her lower back.
During surgery to fix the hole, a vein was damaged, leading to blood clots. She was admitted to hospital and given a common blood thinner, Heparin.
“And I was allergic to it,” she said. “The Heparin assisted the clots instead of fighting them. And I ended up pretty much with my leg swelling and dying. Just lots of clots.”
In 2016, on her 44th birthday, surgeons amputated her left leg below the knee.
“And then I started to rebuild my life,” she said.
“That included learning to walk again, cycle. I was coaching triathletes at the time. So I had to adapt… walking on sand with a peg leg. Sinking in the sand…getting up on a paddleboard again. Being able to swim out in open water…all those things you take for granted; they were all new beginnings.”
Moving to Cambridge from the Kapiti Coast following a separation was another fresh start.
She worked part-time at Cycling New Zealand for a year in coach development in 2022 before realising it wasn’t her passion.
“Not because of the organisation, at all, because they’re doing great things… I actually missed the kids,” she said. “I actually missed teaching.”
She has been working part-time at Kaipaki School for three years now, loving the flexibility that provides.
In her spare time she has mentored more than 50 athletes, volunteers at local cycling and rowing events.
Lynley believes the digital age is softening modern children to the point where “when things get tough it’s too easy to give in”.
And, with life being so busy for parents, “some kids do tend to just get left to their own devices, literally”, she said.
She encourages parents to spend as much as possible with their children outdoors.
Today, Lynley loves sharing stories about the hurdles she’s overcome in her own life.
“That’s why I teach, because it’s development,” she said. “That’s all I want, is progress and development for these kids.”