In the first of a series on finalists in this year's Teaching Awards, Michael Duffy talks to Doreen Minnis (pictured), winner of the Northern Ireland award for secondary special needs teaching.
For as long as she can remember, Doreen Minnis wanted to be a teacher. At the age of three, say her family, the blackboard and easel were her favourite toys. At the age of 12, still before the days of the 11-plus, she won a pupil-teacher scholarship to her local grammar school in Belfast. She smiles about it now ("I must be the last survivor of the monitorial system") but it paid her fees, bought her books and saw her through, still only 17, to teacher training college. By the age of 19, she was a qualified nursery infant teacher.
Now, at the age of 65 and in the first weeks of her retirement, she is a finalist in this year's Teaching Awards. She really doesn't know, she says, how it happened; she claims she doesn't deserve it. But when you talk to her you quickly sense that she is, as her school described her, a special person.
She stayed in infant teaching till 1993. Then arthritis ("You spend so much time on the floor in infant teaching, it gets difficult to get up again") and the government-sponsored Belfast literacy and numeracy action project ("a wonderful chance of doing something new") persuaded her to retrain for special needs.
In 1996 she was appointed as reading specialist at Ashfield Boys high school - an inner-city Belfast school with (at that time) major reading problems. It was the staff and governors there who nominated her for the award. "She changed the ethos of this school. Reading, and the love of reading, have become part of its life," they said.
"The school was a great support," she says. "It gave me an attractive room and good resources. All first-year pupils came to me for at least some of their lessons. Ad I never had to cover other teachers' lessons."
So the job was a proverbial bed of roses?
"No, of course it wasn't. If you put all you've got into your teaching, it gets tiring. By the end of every day your energy is flagging. You have your disappointments, too. But there is still a thrill in seeing youngsters opening up to learning."
What's the magic that makes that happen?
"Laughter helps," she says. "I use joke books a lot. I know I'm winning when I see them sniggering over the pages. I use plays a lot, too - and stories with pictures about teenagers. But the pictures have to be of boys who are slightly older than the ones I'm teaching. And the stories have to be exciting - about cars, football, motorbikes. I have exciting posters on my walls - not lists of words. I try to give them a message that books are full of exciting stories. I try always to work at their level."
Her school agrees. "She has created a haven for the boys," a colleague says. "They enjoy being with her. She laughs and giggles with them. She understands what they are thinking and feeling. She takes the fear out of the printed word."
So how does she react to being a Teaching Award finalist, perhaps a national winner? She laughs again. "It's a lovely retirement present but I really didn't need it. To be a teacher was enough reward."
The national final of the Teaching Awards at the Millennium Dome on October 29 will be broadcast live on BBC TV
DOREEN MINNIS'S TOP TIPS
* Show them that reading can be fun. By the age of 11, they have often forgotten that.
* Praise them, praise them, praise them! Remember that praise rewards and motivates.
* Use peer approval to encourage appropriate behaviour. Show the group that misbehaviour spoils their fun.
* Never patronise, ridicule or be sarcastic.
* Be patient.