There's a boy in Year 12 at King James's school who's wearing a T-shirt that says "GENIUS". "It's a lie," he says with a half-smile. But then he tells you a story that convinces you it's maybe half-true. It's about how he fell under the influence of one particular teacher at the school in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. "I used to be a bit of a swine to the teachers and eventually I got myself into the bottom set. But then I was in Mr Keogh's lessons and I gave him so much respect. He got my attitude sorted and I went from the bottom to the top set."
Paul Keogh, head of modern foreign languages, advanced skills teacher and secondary teacher of the year in the 2003 Teaching Awards, often takes bottom sets. "He passes up the opportunity to teach a nice Year 9 group, and goes for the lower set in Year 11," says headteacher David Hudson, who believes Mr Keogh, 39, is the best teacher he's ever met. "I've never seen a lesson of his that wasn't a 'one'. He's got a kind of magic there. I call him the Pied Piper - the kids just follow him."
King James's, a large (1,750 pupils, 130 staff), fully comprehensive 11-18 mixed school serving a market town, is successful by most conventional measures, with 72 per cent of GCSE pupils gaining five A*-C grades this summer. But every child Mr Keogh teaches makes huge strides, say the parents, and their progress isn't just in French. It's in their confidence and in their attitude. "He makes every child want to have a go," says a support assistant who is amazed that even she is learning to speak French in Mr Keogh's lessons. "He's full of enthusiasm and he makes it fun."
Evidence of his success with all abilities came this summer when every exam candidate he taught achieved a grade higher than their measured ability had predicted. Carl Sugden, a deputy head at King James's, had the happy task of telling Mr Keogh he had scored "all positive residuals - no negatives, and that's rare".
For the national judges, choosing the secondary teacher of the year was a particularly tough job. From a list of 10 regional winners, four were shortlisted, all of them advanced skills teachers who, as it happened, had taught for a long time, if not for their whole careers, in the same school.
"Schools need teachers who stay," says Mr Hudson, "and Paul Keogh is a rock."
All four had glowing testimonials so it was the observed lesson that clinched it. Mr Keogh's lesson was with a mixed-ability Year 8 class.
Physically active from the start, he had them standing up, chanting the alphabet, sounding their vowels, singing the French equivalent of "Head-shoulders-knees-and-toes". The aim was to learn the words for parts of the body, masculine, feminine and plural, with a practical purpose. If his pupils ever ended up in a French hospital - as happened to him this summer when his baby son fell ill - he wanted them to be able to communicate.
Armed with a bulging black plastic bin bag, he had them spellbound as, like a magician, he produced his own children's toys, each with a limb or a body part in bandages. First out of the bag was Kermit, la grenouille, with an "arm" in a sling. Action Man had lost a leg, "c'est triste", and Bob the Builder, "pauvre Bob", had "mal ... la main" after an accident at work.
Mr Keogh had the children out at the front, demonstrating an injury, talking in pairs about their ears, eyes and noses, and laughing at the toys. If they were inhibited about expressing themselves, there was plenty of praise and encouragement. "Magnifique Adam, Nathan et Jack. Merci." At the end there was a rousing rendition of "Bob, le macon, On peut le reparer? Bob, le macon, Oui bien sur!"
Singing is one of Mr Keogh's many teaching devices, and if you're in Year 13 and lucky enough to be in his tutor group you'll celebrate "Happy Birthday" in Arabic and French. "He's got such a way with words," says one member of the group.
Being energetic and physical is very much part of his style - he agreed to wear a pedometer for a local radio station and was second only to the town's milkman for the distance covered during a working day. Married to Julie, a former head of geography at King James's, he walks to work and brings his young family to every school event, including to the touchline for school matches. His influence as head of Year 7 for several years has been lasting; each summer term he still organises a Year 7 World Cup football challenge when for a week they learn the language of the team they represent - Portuguese, Danish, Japanese, Russian, Spanish. The finals are a colourful, whole-school affair with the champions playing the female staff representing England.
He's raised pound;10,000 for the NSPCC, which, among other things, has required him to wear a pink tutu in an assembly. His sense of humour and his height - well over 6ft - no doubt helped him carry that off. "He's the friendly face of King James's and he's always smiling," says one pupil fan.
"He's not afraid of anything," adds his boss, Mr Hudson.
Mr Keogh achieved a distinction in his PGCE at Leeds University in 1982-83 and was clearly "a teacher of great promise", according to his tutor, Colin Ash, who remains in close contact. Passionate about his subject, Mr Keogh gives an annual talk to PGCE students at Leeds and, no doubt, helped the department get a top mark in an inspection when Ofsted noted the "high quality of the visiting speaker". King James's is now a training school with around 20 student teachers on site. Mr Keogh acts as a tutor, mentor and Teacher Training Agency advocate, encouraging people to enter the profession.
Heidi Girardier was first taught by Paul Keogh at King James's in Year 9.
As a pupil she took part in language festivals and a French radio competition, watched French satellite TV and went on exchanges. "His belief in me was so great I began to believe in myself," says Ms Girardier, now a PGCE student of modern languages herself. "They say 'no one forgets a good teacher', but he is my role model."
Mr Keogh's passion and enthusiasm for his subject is undeniable - "you will do A-level French", are his reassuring words to nervous Year 7s. The Government may have made languages non-mandatory at GCSE, but Mr Keogh is a doughty defender of language learning; all pupils at King James's, which has a departmental staff of 11, take a language up to GCSE at 16 and will continue to do so.
Ask him how he has come this far and you get a relaxed and genuine response. It seems there might be such a thing as the teaching gene - his father's a retired head and his two brothers are in teaching too. "It's the best job in the world," he says.
Sarah Bayliss is editor of TESFriday magazine and a member of the Teaching Awards judging panel. The national final of the awards will be broadcast on BBC2, Saturday November 1, at 4.30pm. Nominations for next year's awards can be made at www.teachingawards.com
TEACHING AWARDS: THE TOP TEN
This is the fifth year of the National Teaching Awards, with a record 3,892 entries. The chairman of the national judges, emeritus professor Ted Wragg, says it has been the "hottest" contest to date. "The standard has been fantastic in every category." He's been struck by "all-round competence".
"These aren't just people who are experts in their subjects or age range - they also cope brilliantly with targets and all that assessment stuff, with children whose behaviour is difficult to manage, with helping to train other teachers and getting involved in their communities. They are ahead of the game on all fronts."
Last weekend 150 regional winners spent two days in the heart of London, attending workshops in best practice, a gala dinner, then the finals at the London Palladium. Ten winners of the awards, popularly known as Platos, were presented with prizes of cash, ICT equipment (each got a laptop), and professional development courses worth pound;25,000 to take back to their schools. Lord Puttnam, chair of the Teaching Awards Trust, said the value of good teachers was at a premium. Teachers, he said, made an "extraordinary contribution to our collective prosperity and well-being".
The Plato winners
Headteacher of the year Fiona Allen, Corsham primary, Corsham, Wiltshire Primary teacher of the year Nina Panayis, Godwin junior school, London borough of Newham
Secondary teacher of the year Paul Keogh, King James's school, Knaresborough, North Yorkshire
Outstanding new teacher Gemma Berry, Woolston community primary, Warrington Teaching assistant of the year Judith Howes, Hardwick primary, Stockton on Tees
Outstanding school and community involvement Robert Barber, The Park community school, Barnstaple, Devon
Science teacher of the year Alan Liddell, Beauchamps high school, Wickford, Essex
ICT teacher of the year Dan Buckley, Eggbuckland community college, Plymouth
Special needs teacher of the year Julie Levy, Westleigh high school, Lancashire
Lifetime achievement award Tony Maxwell (headteacher), St Michael's RC secondary, Billingham, Stockton on Tees