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Cupboard love is mark of a winner

It takes a lot of imagination to envisage a former PE cupboard as a special sanctuary for special needs pupils.

But Susan Withers, Wales's teaching assistant of the year, says a positive attitude is key to everything she does at Penygarn junior school, in Pontypool - from dishing out wet paper towels for playground injuries, to organising bad hair day fundraising events and creating "awesome" displays for the school hall.

"The children love her to pieces," says headteacher Judith Hillier. "Her contribution to the school is immeasurable. Nothing is ever too much trouble for Susan. And she tackles all aspects of her work with warmth, commitment and enthusiasm."

Mrs Withers provides extra support for a dozen 10 and 11-year-olds. The extra help with numeracy and literacy is invaluable, but so is the sense of self-worth she helps instil in pupils.

"The entire ethos of the school is to create a positive and encouraging environment for the children," she says. "But for my group that extra praise and encouragement is essential for building up their self-esteem."

One of the facilities developed by Mrs Withers is the den. A roomy PE cupboard in a former life, it now serves as a bright, cheery classroom and refuge.

"It's a special area they can call their own," she says. "It's decorated with their work and all their names are up on the wall."

Mrs Withers, who has two adult children, qualified as a nursery nurse 12 years ago and has spent the past 10 years at Penygarn. One of the most important aspects of her role, she says, is preparing her charges for the adjustments they have to make when they leave Penygarn and start life at the comprehensive school.

"It's a big step for any child, as a junior school is inevitably smaller and far more intimate than a comprehensive school," she says.

"I hope to give them the confidence to cope with that change successfully.

You watch out for them as if they are your own and you really want them to do well. Luckily the comprehensive school is only up the road, and they often pop back to see us."

Mrs Withers will now go on to compete for the national Teaching Awards title in October, but she underplays her achievement in winning a Welsh Plato.

"It's fantastic to win this regional award. But the biggest reward has to be the reaction of the children in the classroom on a daily basis. There's nothing better than seeing their pride in their achievements. That means the most."

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