Tributes paid to popular Avenue Middle School head who taught thousands of Norwich children

A formal photograph of Juris Zarins, former headteacher of Avenue Middle School, who has died

Juris Zarins, former headteacher of Avenue Middle School, who has died - Credit: SUBMITTED

Famous for his jaw-dropping school assemblies, passionate advocate for education and much-loved Norwich headteacher Juris Zarins made an impact on all who knew him.

To Juris, known as Juri to friends and family, teaching wasn’t just a job, it was his life’s work: his pride in his school, his staff, his pupils and their education shone from him and inspired generations.

Juris Zarins, devoted husband, father and headteacher at Avenue Middle School for 20 years, died on Friday March 19 aged 72.

He had, according to all accounts, tackled his cancer diagnosis with the same upbeat positivity and resolve he had showcased throughout his life.

Born in London, the first son of Reinis and Biruta Zarins, Juris’ parents had escaped the Russians in Latvia, found each other in a displaced persons’ camp and spent their early years together living with Biruta’s parents.

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The couple, who had two children, Juris and brother Peter, later moved to Kingston-upon-Thames. When Juris started school, his first language was Latvian.

Adjusting to speaking English was tough and Juris felt let down by his teachers – it left him with a deep sense of injustice which he later channelled into a desire to educate children in a better way.

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Juris was proud of the fact that at his secondary school, Hollyfield Secondary Modern, he was in the year below Eric Clapton who, he told people, was really cool – “even then”.

His world revolved around friends and adventures, getting into scrapes, playing in woods, streams and dangerous places.

Former Avenues’ pupils can be assured that the childhood stories he recounted in his legendary assemblies were all true, if occasionally very slightly embellished: thousands of pupils will remember the infamous, risk-taking Inky Gordon.

From his parents he inherited a love foraging for mushrooms, leaves and crayfish and he would spend endless Sundays in the woods walking with them and his extremely diminutive Granny who could out-trek them all.

Having not enjoyed his own school days, Juris moved on to Kingston College of Further Education, where he thrived, and then to the University of East Anglia where he found a lively Drama Club.

He and wife Dene, who also taught at Avenue First School and Recreation Road Infant School, settled in Norwich where they had two children, daughter Maija and son Aleks. Juris was so very proud of them all.

Post-UEA, Juris enjoyed a variety of jobs, including a short spell as Father Christmas in Debenhams and some teaching in Great Yarmouth which inspired him to take a teacher training course at Keswick Hall College of Education in Norwich.

Juris Zarins, former headteacher at Avenue Middle School, at a school sports event

Juris Zarins at an Avenue Middle School sporting event - Credit: SUBMITTED

He would go on to spend the next 30 years of his life teaching, 24 of which were as a headmaster at two Norwich schools.

He taught at Oriel High School in Gorleston-on-Sea, Larkman Middle School, Heartsease Middle School and Mattishall Middle School before he found his teaching home at Avenue Middle School in 1988.

He spoke in an article in the Norwich Evening News about how he’d had an unsuccessful interview at the school in 1974 and had known he’d return one day as its headteacher.

“Really, in some ways, I had always earmarked this school as something I had wanted for a headship,” he said.

During his 20-year stint at Avenues, Juris led the bid – in partnership with Parkside and Avenue First Schools - for Lottery funding which resulted in the Recreation Road Sports Centre being built.

He was a huge supporter of the arts and during his headship at the Avenues, the Performing Arts Week became legendary: productions and concerts were lavish and accomplished, children’s talent was always nurtured.

Juris – himself a keen marathon runner (he completed the first London Marathon) and orienteering distance cyclist – was a great advocate for outdoor activity and sport and ran the cross country club in addition to teaching PE.

Executive Headteacher at Avenue Middle School Deborah Dismore said: “Avenues children loved listening to his infamous assembly stories – he was a master in the art of suspense and intrigue and you could hear a pin drop in a hall full of 400 captivated children.

“He was wise, generous of time, spirit and support and had a great sense of humour.

He believed every child had the right to the best education possible and campaigned tirelessly on the schools’ forum for the finance to support this.

“His legacy can still be seen throughout the school – strong governance, an active Parent Teacher Association, Charities Week, a steadfast commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum, valued parent helpers in school – the list is endless.”


Juris Zarins, pictured with colleagues - Credit: Archant

After retirement in 2008, Juris vowed that his days in education and the mounting levels of paperwork and bureaucracy were over.

He and Dene moved to Hove in Sussex…and he immediately became a school governor at a local school and volunteered at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Not for Juris a quiet, relaxing retirement.

Mrs Dismore added: “I have numerous memories of our time leading Avenues together…most of all I will remember his devotion – to him this was not just a job or a role, it was his life’s work and every day he was committed to making the school the best it could be for all the pupils within it.

“His favourite place in the school was looking out of the window on the Year five/six corridor watching the children at play: that's where I will remember him.”

Following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis last year, Juris had been making the most of life and had been cycling until recently.

His loss has led to an avalanche of tributes from former pupils, staff and friends, a touching testament to the huge impression he left on the many lives he touched.

Memories of Juris Zarins:  

Catriona Milne (whose children Charlie, Helen, Ellie and Michael attended AMS): “We all adored Mr Zarins and have so many fond memories of the children's time at the school. The latest Inky Gordon assembly story would always be recounted at home - the time Inky Gordon stopped to tie his shoelaces while crossing a road and got hit by a car, some mishap that happened while Inky Gordon was sledging, some conker-related Inky Gordon adventure (I have a feeling he filled them with cement, but I may have imagined that!) - I wish I could remember all the details. He helped to make my children's time at the school a very happy one, and I will always be grateful for that.”

Rosie Riddell, Teaching Assistant and Librarian: “There are so many things I could say about you, Juri. Your understanding, thoughtfulness and support that you and Dene gave was so much appreciated by me and my family when I needed it the most in difficult times in my life. I will never forget this and will always thank you. You were a great headteacher, Juri, there not only for the children, but for staff too. You will never ever be forgotten.”

Lucinda Poliakoff and Rico Coen: “Juri dealt with his cancer as he would any challenge that needed to be faced head-on. During our last conversations with him he displayed his usual sense of humour, despite the gruelling chemo. “I’ve finally realised that all those stories I told at assembly summarise my basic philosophy of life,” he said. “What is that?” we asked. Juri replied: “S**t happens”. 

Anna Wilson, former Avenues teacher: “Juri was a great man.  I have so many memories of him and feel really blessed to have known him. He always knew how to engage with people and was genuinely interested in everyone’s lives. Him and his gilet were legendary and he will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him – he was dear to me.” 

Barry Payne, headteacher of Parkside Special School until 2018: “I started as Head Teacher at Parkside Special School in September 1997. The very first week I was contacted by Juri welcoming me to the area and asking me to join him in getting a campaign together to get better facilities on the Recreation Road Sports Field. Juri Zarins showed me, a new headteacher, how to put children first, to always have a goal and to never to give up. What a role model he was! He will be sadly missed.”

Kay Day, former parent governor: “Juris was so much a part of Avenue Middle School that he has touched the lives of so many parents and children.As a parent (1995 - 2005), I saw how much he gave to the school. It was a true privilege to work with him and for my children to attend such a wonderful school.”

Theresa and Richard Easter: “We think he set our children on the right direction in life with his firm but fair approach. However one incident where he took us in the wrong direction happened when we set off on holiday one year.  Overtaking a touring caravan, the children were so excited to see it was Juri and with much waving we missed our turning and ended up miles in the wrong direction!”

Rosie Towler-Paston: “ Mr Zarins WAS The Avenues...He was respected by eight to 12-year-olds... that is a huge accomplishment I don’t think many people could ever achieve.”

Beverley Ellis (Avenue Junior School 1994-2017): “I have many memories of Juri, but one of my clearest is the first time we met when he interviewed me for a position at Avenue Junior School. I was nervous and wasn't sure I had the experience needed for the role, but I was quickly reassured as he reframed a lot of what I thought to be irrelevant into welcome assets for the position - everything from running my home, raising three children and juggling their many activities, helping out at a local luncheon club, even my experience as a barmaid.”

Serena Dixon (deputy head/headteacher of Avenue First School, 1996 – 2007): “I remember the support and confidence that Juri provided, especially needed by a newbie! Being right next door was always a comforting thought. His calm, practical way and wealth of experience were so valued as was his dry sense of humour. Juri made Avenue Junior an important and vital place in the community.

Paul Hoey, Norfolk County Council Education and Children’s Services (1988 - 2015): “I had enormous respect for Juri; his good nature and deep commitment to children shone through. Juri leaves a strong legacy and is someone who I will remember as being good to work with and with whom it was easy to share a common purpose.”

Liv Green: “My sisters and I all remember Mr Zarins from our time at AJS and his amazing stories that would have the whole assembly hall in hysterics. I especially remember him telling a story about losing his hair and he had fake hair in his pocket that he waved around the assembly hall (we all gasped at that!).”

Kay Dixon, Katy Johnson, Suzy Ball, Jamie Sutherland, former pupils: “Mr Zarins was the heart and soul of our time at Avenues. Avenues wouldn’t have been Avenues if it weren’t for him! There are only the fondest of memories that we will cherish as some of the happiest moments of our childhood, in which Mr Zarins will remain such an important part.”

Nikki Teasdale, Avenue Junior and Middle School teacher: “One thing I remember most about Juri is how focused he was on learning for all the children. He was truly determined that every child would get the best possible education. That's an approach I've also really tried to bring when working with the children. His praise and positive comments were so welcome and inspired me to keep going and to be where I am today.”

Shifa Mears, former pupil: “He was an amazing teacher and for my part at least I can say he really made me feel seen and loved. He noticed my ability at cross-country and in drama and really encouraged me. I remember him being very present and aware of everything that was going on. I can hardly remember the headteachers at other schools I attended, but I will never forget Mr Zarins!”

Louise Gibbs, Teaching Assistant: “I remember a family event on Heigham Park field and sitting and chatting to Juri and Dene. He said that the school and all the children were more than just a job to him, but his life. It was a sentiment that stuck with me.”

Jo Thompson, parent of AMS pupils and former member of staff: “Everything that happened in the school life of the children, he was there - cheering them on at sports events, clapping proudly at musical performances, sweeping the hall floor after PTA quiz and chip nights and even at all the school discos, where he would rather serve the squash than be seen on the dance floor! Everyone knew that he did all that not just because he was interested, or it was his job, but because he cared.”

- To view all our obituaries and tributes join the Facebook group Norfolk's Loved & Lost.

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