Ian Hunt has such a bond with pupils they copy his hairstyle.
Adi Bloom on a celeb-filled celebration of staff talent
When Ian Hunt decided to wear his hair in pop-star spikes, rather than gelled flat, he was not making a deliberate fashion statement. But within a week the 19-year-old teaching assistant found that most of his pupils had also tousled their own, carefully gelled-back locks.
"Pupils don't see me as a member of staff," he said. "They look up to me.
Until I started this job, I didn't look cool, gel my hair or wear designer clothes. But now I have to keep up, so they respect me."
Mr Hunt has worked at Wood Green high, in Sandwell, west Midlands, since leaving the school at the age of 16. His job title is "assistant site manager", but his real role is as classroom assistant, first-aider and pupil mentor.
And he has launched a lunchtime and after-school PlayStation club, which he hopes to spread to other schools in the area, through inter-school tournaments. Having overcome severe dyslexia to gain five Cs at GCSE, he encourages other special-needs pupils not to underestimate their academic abilities.
"I don't want to grow old," he said. "Growing old won't suit me. I want to be a big kid. Then I can still be one of the pupils, and they won't see me as an old man. I ask them to call me Ian. But some can't grasp that I'm not sir or Mr Hunt. So they call me 'Sir Ian'."
While the Queen has yet to formalise this title, Mr Hunt's achievements at Wood Green have been acknowledged elsewhere. This week, he beat off competitors decades older to receive the award for teaching assistant of the year at the National Teaching Awards.
The awards ceremony, hailed as "the teachers' Oscars", was held at London's Palace Theatre on Sunday, and broadcast later that evening on BBC2. Hosted by TV presenter Eamonn Holmes, the ceremony's celebrity guests also included actor Bill Nighy and Sir Trevor McDonald, the ITN newsreader.
Iain Hulland, who was named headteacher of the year, received his award from actress Imogen Stubbs.
Mr Hulland, the head of Alder Grange high in Lancashire, said: "It was a combination of real thrill and abject terror. I've always been a fan of Imogen Stubbs - she's a bonny lass. Even my son said I was a lucky old codger.
"I was honoured that the school had been recognised. But all the other recipients had already said what I'd wanted to say. So I had no originality left."
Sue Seifert, head of Montem primary, in north London, found herself similarly lost for words when she was announced as winner of the lifetime-achievement award. "I was gobsmacked," she said. "Then I thought, if I can take an assembly, I can do this."
Ms Seifert's impromptu speech focused on the qualities that she believes are vital in a successful head. "You need a sense of humanity and a bloody good sense of humour.
"I can't say that children being happy is part of my educational philosophy, but if you've got happy children, you've got learning children.
And if you can't laugh at yourself, teaching becomes a rather frightening and dull experience," she said.
Primary teacher of the year: Pam Roberts, Park Street infants, Monmouthshire
Secondary teacher of the year: Philip Beadle, Eastlea community technology college, Newham, east London
Innovation in education: Baldev Singh, John Cabot city technology college, south Gloucestershire
Headteacher of the year: Iain Hulland, Alder Grange high, Lancashire
Outstanding new teacher: Christopher Harte, St Robert of Newminster RC school, Sunderland
Excellence in special-needs teaching: Guy Wilkins, Marjorie McClure school, Bromley, south London
Leadership within a school: Gill Harries, Penryn college, Cornwall
School and community involvement: Claire Davidson, Ridgeway school, Plymouth
Teaching assistant of the year: Ian Hunt, Wood Green high, Sandwell
Lifetime achievement: Sue Seifert, Montem primary, Islington, north London