Claire Jerman had high hopes, as any NQT on her very first morning would, as she walked into a classroom at Hillside special school in Plymouth. By 3.15pm, her day's supply teaching "a riot", she was in despair: "I went to the deputy head and said, 'I didn't do my aims and objectives, I couldn't use the lesson plans or anything.' He said 'Yes, but did you stay in the room?' I said 'Yes'. He said 'Will you come back tomorrow?' And weirdly enough, even though I'd had a very traumatic day, I said 'Yes'."
Two weeks later, the school for 11 to 16-year-old boys with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties was put into special measures and temporarily closed. But by then Ms Jerman was hooked. Qualified to teach secondary geography, she had, she says, almost no special needs experience while training. Yet she was asked back to Hillside on long-term supply, then offered a job, teaching science and food technology. She became head of humanities when still in her first year. It was, she said, "scary but a great challenge: to create a whole department from scratch".
Ms Jerman had given up retail management after realising she cared less about selling jumpers than helping her Saturday staff with their geography homework. Four years on, aged 28, with Hillside out of special measures and firmly identified as a good school by Ofsted, she is head of key stage 3 and part of the school's senior management team, as well as being the South West region's Special Needs Teacher of the Year. The judges picked her not only for reinvigorating the curriculum with Tudor banquets and Christmas feasts and for looking holistically at the experience of school for children who are materially and emotionally deprived, but also for her irrepressible enthusiasm: "How can anyone not think these kids are brilliant? If learning is fun and exciting, then they want to learn."
London's regional winner of the SEN award has taken a different career path. Hilary Cook, 57, has worked in mainstream Lauriston primary school in Hackney for 20 years, in language support, as literacy co-ordinator and finally as Senco. During that time Lauriston has taken pupils with visual impairment, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism and emotional and behavioural difficulties. Ms Cook says her work begins before each child enters school, liaising with medical colleagues and nurseries. Once they arrive at Lauriston, she says, her goal is "to make them as much part of the school as any other child. It's their school, and they mustn't be someone who has lots of unusual things done to them."
Ms Cook's own dyslexia may be one reason, says Teaching Awards judge Anne Duffy, why "even when a school might be daunted by a particular child, Hilary never is". Overall, Ms Duffy adds, the dozen regional SEN winners, one of whom will become SEN Teacher of the Year this weekend, were outstanding in "negotiating on behalf of children with parents, with teachers, with other adults, whatever educational setting they were in, to offer personalised learning at its very best."
The Teaching Awards final is televised and shown at 5.55pm on BBC2 on Sunday, October 15. Nominate a teacher for the 2007 awards online at www.teachingawards.com