Chris Tipple and Sheila Dainton did not set out to be researchers as they travelled the country as judges in this year's National Teaching Awards - but everywhere they went they got a remarkably consistent picture of what really good primary teaching is about hat makes a good teacher? What are the magic qualities whereby some teachers are regarded as exceptional? With the current focus on classroom effectiveness, threshold standards and performance management, it is hardly surprising that this is becoming the million dollar question.
When we set out on the challenging and humbling task of judging this year's regional finalists in the Primary Teacher of the Year award, we did not think of ourselves as researchers. Nevertheless, some fascinating and illuminating messages emerged. Do any of these characteristics strike a chord with you?
* "She makes everyone feel special. It's as if everyone's her favourite."
* "She never seems rushed. No matter how busy she is, she's got time for everyone."
* "She explains things so that you really understand", say children.
* "You can actually see how she's getting them to learn", say fellow teachers, teaching assistants and governors.
* "She's always keen to learn from others", say colleagues and parents.
* "He makes everyone want to learn" and "she wears her competence lightly".
* Everyone told us: "We felt so proud of her."
The last comment had real resonance. With no hint of professional jealousy, it pointed to an individual teacher's ability to excel in all respects, and to encourage fellow learners without alienating anyone.
That all-pervasive quality is humility. It demonstrates a respect, not only for others, but for one's self. It recognises that we are all in the "learning game", that we all need to keep a sensible work-life balance, and that there are no easy answers.
What is the "official" definition of a good teacher? A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, from management consultants HayMcBer, includes a full dictionary of characteristics for effective teaching. But, at 70 pages - that's the short version - not many teachers will have time to read it. Reassuringly, the report starts with a list of 20 characteristics, as seen through the eyes of eight-year-olds. There are few surprises. A good teacher is kind, generous, listens to you, encourages you, has faith in you, helps you when you're stuck, keeps confidences, and so on.
When we went to schools as judges, we listened to "evidence", from children as well as parents, teachers, governors, teaching assistants and other people in the school community. We spent time with the teacher in her classroom (all of the regional finalists were women) and later talked to her about her work.
It was during the third series of visits that we realised certain themes were recurring time and again. Without prompting, children, teachers, parents and others kept saying the same things.
We don't pretend to have answered the million dollar question. We can't claim to speak wih the gravitas of the HayMcBer report. It was, nevertheless, interesting that there was no mention of "good discipline" and "full and accurate subject knowledge". It was not that the teachers did not possess these qualities but, through the strength of their personalities, they had turned them into something more important.
While many teachers are enthusiastic about the Teaching Award, some are, understandably, sceptical. It's all too easy to be demoralised by negative images of teachers and schools, perpetuated by unhelpful commentators. With your support, the award scheme is an opportunity to help counter this negativity. It has never pretended to be based on foolproof rocket science. What we have gleaned is an insight into what really good primary teaching is all about - as seen by pupils, colleagues and others in the school community. It is an ideal opportunity for a public celebration of the superb work teachers such as yourselves are doing day in and day out, often with little of the recognition and respect that you deserve.
Let's celebrate - and send your nominations for the 2001 awards.
Chris Tipple retired this year as chief education officer for Northumberland. Sheila Dainton is education policy adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers
NATIONAL TEACHING AWARDS 2000
The second annual National Teaching Awards, or Platos, were presented to 14 national primary and secondary winners, who each received pound;23,500 in prize money, at the Dome on October 29. More than 150 regional winners received pound;3,500, and 250 commended teachers received pound;500. The award is independent of government and is sponsored by an independent charity, the Teaching Awards Trust.
Lloyds TSB Award for Lifetime Achievement: Catherine Ann Samuel, deputy head, Blaendulais primary school, Neath, who has taught under-fives for 39 years.
The Guardian Award for Primary Teacher of the Year: Alison Hatch, Year 4 teacher at Northdown primary school, Margate.
Award for Classroom Assistant of the Year: Denise Murray, Beaumont Hill special school, Darlington.
Award for Most Outstanding New Primary Teacher: Jenny O'Connor, Yew Tree primary, Walsall.
Leadership Trust Award for Primary School Leadership: Mags Long, headteacher at St Rumon's Church of England infants school, Tavistock.
Award for Excellence in Special Needs Teaching: Mary Campbell, St Gerard's educational resource centre, West Belfast.
Award for Working with Parents and the Community: Eric Gates, headteacher of Chantry primary school, Gravesend.
BT Award for Most Creative Use of Information Technology in a Primary School: David Baugh, ysgol Frongoch, North Wales.
For a nomination pack for next year's awards, contact the Teaching Awards Trust, 15 Berners Street, London W1P 3DE, tel: 020 7907 1500, fax: 020 7907 1515, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit: www.teachingawards.com NoJGHK-5 Left to right: winners Denise Murray (class assistant), Jenny O'Connor (primary outstanding new teacher), Alison Hatch (primary teacher of the year)