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Editorial - What makes a good teacher remains one of life's mysteries - but pessimists need not apply

For those not distracted by the prospect of another royal wedding, the precarious state of the Irish economy and the unexpected survival of Wagner in the X-Factor, there can only be one topic of conversation - what makes a good teacher? Teach First published research this week claiming that its motivated graduate teachers enhanced overall school performance. Consultants McKinsey, in a separate survey, found that nothing improves standards more than the quality of teachers and heads. Michael Gove, meanwhile, argued that the best education systems not only attract the best candidates, but continually develop their teachers, too (pages 6-7). The cause of quality teaching hasn't received such public approbation since Robin Williams leapt on a desk.

Numerous studies over the years have shown that a good teacher increases pupil performance significantly, even if the biggest determinant of attainment remains family background. In this country, not only is the gulf in standards between schools one of the widest in the developed world, the variations within schools are some of the greatest, too. Variable teaching quality must account for the latter finding.

Unfortunately, we are as near to discovering what makes a teacher really good as we are to understanding the mind of God, time travel and belly-button fluff. Clearly, teachers need a certain level of intelligence to impart knowledge. Equally, a brilliant scholar who lacks the patience and empathy to explain concepts to a puzzled pupil will not a teacher make.

Self-evidently, teaching is a practical profession, like dentistry. Some term it a "craft" because it requires mastery of skills that are best learnt on the job, in front of a class. But it is also more than a craft. Unlike dentists, teachers have to inspire as well as fix. Imaginative dentistry is a terrifying, not to say bloody, prospect. Teaching is both process and vocation. It can be bloody, too, but the pain is usually borne by the practitioner, not the patient.

So to be absolutely clear: teachers have to be bright but empathetic, patient but enthusiastic, practical but creative, imaginative but organised, confident but not complacent, inspirational but grounded. In what precise proportions, no-one has the faintest idea. Neither is there any consensus over where these qualities should be developed (TES Magazine, pages 10-17).

One thing is absolutely certain, however. Pessimists make lousy teachers. A belief that children can and will improve, even in the face of evidence that purports to show the contrary, is essential. A good teacher has optimism levels that exceed those of the cheesiest presidential speechwriter. Yes, we can... ask not what your country can do for you... we have nothing to fear but fear itself - not even that large tattooed parent. Optimistic teachers are also confident that Ireland will pull through, that Wills and Kate won't go the way of Charles and Di, and will probably vote for Wagner.

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