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With the school year finished, it is time to shelve textbooks and watch students scatter to the four winds. It's a winding-down time, and for no one more than teachers. They deserve their summer break.

Teachers as a group, in fact, tend to get a bum rap in our society. The best teachers I know work fiercely hard at their calling. Most are dedicated; some are brilliant. In fourth grade I had a teacher named Iris Berry who could go full steam all day - long division, Abraham Lincoln, Hawaii volcanoes, spelling bees - and never lose her temper. At recess she would then come outside and umpire our softball games. She was something.Teachers hold the key to what makes schools tick, although from a quick sampling of the literature on "school reform" you might not know it. People who work at improving American schools tend to focus on such things as budgets, drop-outs, testing, administration, curriculum requirements, legislative finagling - almost everything except the person who makes all the difference for a student: the teacher. When it comes to ranking various occupations, Americans don't seem to hold teaching in high esteem; and most salary scales reflect this lack of regard.

Teachers as a group deserve better.

One year in high school we had a substitute teacher for physics. He was only with our class for a couple of weeks. But in that time he showed us fascinating laboratory gadgets, and thus held our attention. He brought in a desktop electrical device called a Van de Graaff generator that could throw out a dazzling blue spark of nearly a million volts. Because this was marvelous theater, it became a marvelous way to hold the attention of easily distracted adolescents.

The brightest teachers aren't always the best teachers, though. In a freshman college course on European history, our class had a woman teaching assistant who was billed as a rising star in the field of pre-medieval France. Luckily for us, she didn't run the whole course. But she met with us each week in a small class section, and each week she would drone on and on, in a monotone, about King Vercingetorix and, you know, the Visigoths and the early popes and Charles the Hammer and . . . zzzzzz. Great material this undoubtedly was. But it was decidedly not greatly taught.

The best teachers I've known have had several qualities in common. They had high standards, first of all, and wouldn't let students get away with doing sloppy work. If on a history paper you would carelessly write "Peace of Utrecht" when all along you really meant to put "Peace of Westphalia," one teacher would pencil into the margin an exquisitely tart little note, with enough bite so that such a blunder was never made again.

High standards don't have a chance, though, unless the teacher can first squirm through the mental fogs and distractions and reach the student. If a point isn't getting across, mere repetition and raising one's voice won't do any good. In such situations a teacher needs to find new angles for snaring the student's interest, and it's not easy.

The most effective teachers often are those with the widest range of interests.

Other valued teacher qualities? Try a sense of humor, patience, a deep-seated love of learning and an equally deep understanding of kids. Add courage, resilience, imagination, boundless energy and infinite tact. A good teacher has some of these qualities; a superb teacher may have them all. Finding, encouraging and rewarding such teachers deserves top priority whenever reformers set about mapping strategies for improving America's schools.