Carol Warren is fortunate in her school. There are seven other classroom assistants at Amery Hill secondary in Alton, Hampshire. They are well resourced and well-supported, and they are very conscious of being a team. And though she modestly disclaims it, her school is pretty fortunate to have Carol Warren. It's not every classroom assistant who brings the experience and the skills she does.
She's a civil servant by background and training. She used to work for the supplementary benefits wing of the then Department of Health and Social Security, visiting homes and making needs assessments, an experience that gave her an insight into the hidden realities of many children's lives. She also worked for what became the Child Support Agency. Then, already involved in education as a parent governor at her children's infants and junior schools, she saw a classroom assistant advertisement at their secondary school. On impulse she applied, and was appointed.
That was in 1992, and she hasn't looked back. Working with individual pupils and with small groups of 11 to 16 children, she supports them in class over the whole range of their curriculum entitlement. Many have specific learning disabilities or behavioural problems; some are hearing impaired, some autistic. It is challenging but rewarding work - a far cry, she wryly says, from chasing errant fathers - and she has immense respect for teachers.
She is conscious, though, that their hands are often tied. "They have to deliver the curriculum, regardless of class size, with no time often to listen to the children's problems. They have to deliver a given amount at a given time. There's no choice, no leeway. But with classroom assistants, the relationship is different. You can listen to the lesson, then re-interpret it, re-deliver it. It's very subtle. But you do gt closer to the children.You learn a lot about them. And the children learn a lot about you."
The children she helps are obviously intrigued by her language skills. She admits to being fluent in French and German, and concedes regretfully that her Italian is "rusty". When the children ask her where she learned her languages she answers: "In school, of course - like you." One of her recurring themes is that children need to understand that adults learn as well. When children question her, she often replies: "I don't know. Let's go and find out."
And what happens when teachers don't know - or get the answer wrong? "It doesn't happen like that. We ask each other. We support each other. We support each other's learning. As a classroom assistant, you're in a privileged position."
So what's the secret? Carol laughs. "There is no secret. I love the children: there's so much they need to learn. When they come here they're not used even to sitting still; they're not used to listening. I'm easy going - except when I know that they can really do it. I don't make judgments. I take them as they are, and try to get them to see what they could be."
What she doesn't say is that she works immensely hard at an unsung, often frustrating job. She is also a parent governor. As her original nomination said: "Her commitment to the pupils and the school is total - far beyond the call of duty."
The national final of the Teaching Awards at the Millennium Dome on October 29 will be broadcast live on BBC TV
Carol's top tips
* Remember you're there to help the children as well as the teacher
* It's a team job. Classroom assistants learn a lot from each other, as well as from the teachers
* To help children learn, you've got to help them want to learn. If you can motivate them, you've got it made
* Be patient. A lot of children have a lot of problems. You have to make allowances
* Be tactful