Nina Panayis is a finalist who didn't intend to be a teacher. She wanted to be a physiotherapist, but a pre-university work experience placement deterred her. "We're just going through the motions here," her mentor at the geriatric clinic told her.
That was no good for Nina. She switched to teacher training, got a "magical" first appointment, and was hooked. "I knew I'd made the right decision." Thirty-two years (and four children, including triplets) later, she's back at the East London primary school that her children attended - as assistant head, beacon co-ordinator, leading maths teacher, numeracy consultant with the local authority, NQT mentor, fairy godmother in the annual pantomime and (parents, staff and pupils agree) "a really inspiring teacher".
Godwin junior school in Newham has changed, of course. Thirty languages are spoken now; and the intake covers short-let hostels (there are a lot of refugee children) to Victorian conservation areas. It is successful, and Nina has made a massive contribution. She steered it to Sports Activemark and Artsmark status, set up links with its sister school in Kingston, Jamaica, and is working on a PFI bid to provide laptops for Years 5 and 6.
"A change of head empowered us all," she says. "We have wonderful support from parents; we work together with commitment. The LEA is forward-thinking. We're a great team."
Check her daily diary and you realise that she is being modest. "I'm in school by seven, to sort myself out; by eight, I'm getting round, meeting people. Except for my beacon work, I teach a full timetable. Lunchtime is for colleagues; after school is for meetings and marking." Not to mention after-school activities, the booster programme, the weekend residentials, and educational evenings for parents.
Colleagues describe her classroom as "stunning". Children say she's "an amazing teacher - a bit like Superwoman". Nina laughs. "I love teaching, that's all - just as I love learning. If there is a secret, it's about looking for people's strengths, not their weaknesses. That, and mutual respect."
The national final of the Teaching Awards is on October 26 and will be broadcast on BBC1 in early November. Nominations for next year's awards open next month at www.teachingawards.com