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How to Feed America’s “Starving” Teachers

I just read a fascinating study published by Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University. The study demonstrates that U.S. faculties have a more difficult job and work under more challenging conditions than teachers in other industrialized nations. Hmmm. Imagine that.

You and I both know that for years, educators have observed international test results as a gauge to measure how well U.S. students are learning 21st century skills compared to their peers around the world. The answer? Not so well. We have fallen further behind other nations and have struggled with a large achievement gap.

Federal policy from the Department of Education sought to address this problem by beefing up testing policies and enforcing tougher penalties on schools. Unfortunately, this strategy hasn’t worked. In fact, U.S. performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) declined in every subject area between 2000 and 2012 — the years in which these policies have been in effect.

So what have we learned from this latest study? Linda Darling-Hammond writes:

“Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

“In short, the survey shows that American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world. They also receive less useful feedback, less helpful professional development, and have less time to collaborate to improve their work. Not surprisingly, two-thirds feel their profession is not valued by society — an indicator that OECD finds is ultimately related to student achievement.”

Three Ideas for School Administrators

I want to concede something at this point: I have a leadership bias. I see everything through the lens of a leader. My experience, however, is deep and wide. Our organization Growing Leaders works in partnership with more than 7,500 schools and youth organizations worldwide. Based on my findings, allow me to offer some ideas on how to address this issue in our schools. I write to administrators:

1. Don’t allow your faculty to become “Starving Bakers”

Too often, American teachers work under emotionally taxing conditions. Picture yourself in front of dozens of not-yet-mature people for six to seven hours a day. Your goal is to teach these often-unwilling listeners, who usually have different priorities in mind. To balance out this draining work, I believe teachers need consistent vision-casting, professional development that actually equips them as communicators, as well as emotional fuel—inspiration. Let’s give them tools and encouragement; many are baking bread for others but starving for it themselves.

2. Recognize Your Top Job is to Create Culture

Administrators often fail to understand this. The school culture (meaning the tone and atmosphere on campus) trumps almost every other component in determining teacher and student performance. Culture trumps strategy, vision or salary as factors for success. Regardless of what mission statement you’ve framed and hung on the wall, if you don’t have a positive, life-giving, growth-focused culture, the words won’t matter. As my friend Andy Stanley says, “What’s hanging on the wall is not nearly as important as what’s happening down the hall.”

3. See your Students as End-Users but your Faculty/Staff as Direct Customers

This may sound strange, but while the students’ achievement and success is your ultimate goal, your staff and faculty are your direct line to that goal. Instead of blaming them when things go poorly, why not look in the mirror and ask yourself: What must I do to better equip and engage these adults in our mission? The effective principals and deans I know all do this—they are equippers of their team, knowing that the students will ultimately be the recipients of a happy, growing staff.

I have said this a million times: teachers are my heroes. Far too often, however, they work under emotionally expensive conditions, and we, the leaders, have not given them the ongoing tools and feedback to be the professionals they need to be.

What do you think?


Looking to develop leadership skills in students this school year? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes



  1. Sher Takahashi on August 21, 2014 at 11:18 am

    I have listened to teachers and I am sure that you have heard a lot of the scenarios played out.

    A lot of what is happening, is due to the moral breakdown of our society. The divorce rate, the breaking up of families. Both parents having to work to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. The absentee parents don’t help in the disciplining of children’s behavior in school either. The lack of the parent taking responsibility of the child’s behavior in school.

    As a Grandparent and listening to our grandchildren, as they share about their first day in kindergarten. They want to follow the rules, they want to hear what the teacher has to say. All of our children have been brought up in a Christian, spirit filled home.

    Our schools will continue to have problems if they don’t start allowing God back into the class rooms. The latest news of a student being suspended be cause someone sneezed and all she said was “God Bless you”. That school administrator and teacher need to a good lesson about Grace and Forgiveness.

    I could go on. But you get my point. The more government gets involved the worse it gets. Buy the way I am not a “Fan”. For those of you who don’t understand that phrase, “I am a Follower”

    Sher Takahashi
    Skyline Church
    Spring Valley, CA.

  2. Kurt Earl on August 24, 2014 at 6:55 am

    I really like the third idea: viewing the teachers as direct customers. To some extent, schools should be a place where teachers can excel. Perhaps we have spent too much time creating environments based on what students need and not enough time considering what teachers need. Obviously, there’s a balance that must be maintained here, but the idea of treating the teacher like the customer is relatively novel and helpful.

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How to Feed America's "Starving” Teachers