From dyslexic pupil to special needs teacher of the year - Hilary Cook has extraordinary insight. Diana Hinds reports
Hilary Cook still remembers the day when everyone in her primary school class went on to the next reading book while she and two others, seated at a different table, went back to the beginning of the first. "I thought, 'It's very odd I can't do these things other people can do.' When you're reasonably bright and finding things difficult that others find easy, you get the impression there's something wrong with you."
Exactly what was "wrong" with her was never established - it was not until her daughter was diagnosed as dyslexic that her suspicions were confirmed.
By that stage she was embarking on a career as a special needs teacher, her passionate interest in children's learning difficulties fuelled by intellectual curiosity as well as by her own personal experiences. So successful has she been that she became this year's national Teaching Awards' special needs teacher of the year.
"Extraordinary," is Hilary's comment. Modest, softly spoken and calm, the morning I speak to her she is working on literacy with four girls from Year 3 who have assorted language and learning difficulties.
Quietly and firmly, always generous with praise, she takes them through a series of well-loved activities, including "brain gym" to limber up, games to practise their listening and phonological skills, and a computer game to develop their understanding of morphemes (the smallest linguistic unit that has meaning).
The lesson ends with the group sashaying down the corridor softly chanting the names of the seasons. Then Hilary is back, excitedly pulling out a new book on morphemes written by colleagues at Oxford University.
"Today's lesson was partly based on this," she explains. "Their research shows that working on morphology - word endings - is very productive, as well as phonics. It's not often done, but if you know about morphemes, it improves your spelling, your reading and writing, and your vocabulary."
Herein lies, perhaps, the secret of her success: an eager interest in new ideas and theory, combined with the patient ability to put them into practice.
Hilary spent the first 16 years of her teaching life as a class teacher, but it was special needs that really interested her. She, in effect, trained herself for the role - taking every opportunity to read and go on courses.
"I am fascinated by the way children learn and develop. Class teachers don't have enough time to look in detail at the way in which learning is taking place. It needs someone who can stand back a bit, in a role like mine."
Hilary came to Lauriston Primary in Hackney, east London, as a literacy support teacher, later becoming a special needs teacher and, five years ago, a special needs co-ordinator.
"It is now a job which, if you're doing it anything like properly, is too big for one person to do," she says. "You are expected to be knowledgeable in all sorts of areas and also have to be a very capable manager."
Lauriston has a very mixed and multi-ethnic intake, a high proportion of children with statements, and one third of the pupils on the school's special needs profiling system.
The most testing part of the job, she says, can be the parents, either because they sometimes over-acknowledge - and inadvertently contribute to - their children's difficulties, or because they are reluctant to admit their child has special needs in the first place.
But the rewards, when a child with dyslexia and dyspraxia makes a success of reading and writing, are huge. "Some of the children I feel best about are those really tough boys," she smiles. "They start out having big difficulties with literacy and very low self-esteem, but they leave us able to do things which would never have been thought possible"
Hilary's keys to success
A willingness to learn: "You need to be very open-minded about what it is that is stopping a child from learning."
Being a really good observer: "You need to notice things in children and have the background knowledge which enables you to interpret them."
Valuing the staff you work with: "My head teacher has always allowed me to develop my own interests and skills. I feel I have to be like that with the staff who work with me."