Modern Education is Killing its Golden Geese

When I was a kid, my parents took us to the drive-in theater to see Mary Poppins—the first movie I ever saw on the big screen. After Mary Poppins, completely happy, I thought we were going home. But no. This was a double feature. I could barely comprehend the outrageous good fortune of watching two movies back-to-back and, in the process, completely demolishing my bedtime.

The second movie, The Million Dollar Duck, was Disney’s retelling of the fable “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.” This masterpiece of cinema was one of only three movies that film critic Gene Siskel walked out on during his professional career. Roger Ebert described it as “one of the most profoundly stupid movies I’ve ever seen.”

Well, there is no accounting for a five-year-old’s taste in movies because I absolutely loved it. What I especially loved was the relationship between the young boy, Jimmy, and the golden-egg-laying duck, Charley. In the face of the greedy adults, Jimmy protected Charley.

In the actual fable, there is no Jimmy—just a man and his wife whose goose lays one golden egg every day. The couple become rich, but they want more. Surmising that this goose must have dozens of golden eggs inside her, they decide to cut her open and become instantly rich beyond their wildest dreams. Of course, when they cut open the goose, there are no golden eggs inside. Rather than getting rich, they had just killed the most valuable thing they had.

Every successful organization has its own version of a golden-egg-laying goose and go to great lengths to protect it—the formula for Coca-Cola, Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe.

In education, the goose is not the textbook, it’s not the technology, it’s not the curriculum, and it’s definitely not the standardized test. It’s not even the students.

If you put 30 students in a room by themselves and supply that room with textbooks, computers, and learning materials, it’s extremely unlikely that anything resembling constructive learning will occur. Learning only happens when you bring in a teacher.

In education, teachers are the golden-egg-laying geese.

Because, for decades, education has been taking advantage of, undervaluing, and exhausting its golden-egg-laying geese, the whole system is on the verge of collapse. Across the nation, teachers are quitting. Some of them are posting gleeful, or heart-breaking, videos about it on TikTok.

Educator Well-Being Matters

In the fable, the moral is simple: greed is bad; don’t kill your golden-egg-laying goose. In education, however, the picture is complicated. In education, there is no greedy farmer and his wife to blame. Just a broken education system that demands more from people than they can sustainably provide. Teachers do their best, but the cost is often too high, leaving them with a devil’s choice of quitting a job they love or remaining at the expense of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Currently, more teachers are leaving education than are graduating from teacher preparation programs, straining an already teetering education system with staffing shortages. In addition, teacher turnover is expensive. A 2017 study by the Learning Policy Institute found that school districts spend over $20,000 on each new hire (“What’s the Cost of Teacher Turnover?). This money could be used in far better ways if teachers received the support they need to thrive in the classroom.

Moreover, teacher well-being matters when it comes to student academic achievement. The first empirical study that measured the impact of teacher stress and burnout on student achievement was done in Germany in 2016. The study involved 1,102 German elementary school teachers and their students and specifically looked at student achievement in math. The results? Teacher emotional exhaustion significantly impacted student math achievement, even after other factors were controlled for (Klusmann, Richter, & Lüdtke).

A Different Approach to Teaching and Learning

The current mania in education reform involves a continual stream of giving teachers more and more things to do—new methods, new ways of using technology. But what if the source of a teacher’s ability to make magic in the classroom were not so much in what she does, but the version of the self she brings to the classroom? By overloading teachers, we effectively restrict their ability to bring their best to their students.

The way out of this mess is to stop giving teachers more to do and instead support teachers to bring their best to their students.

Teach from Your Best Self is an approach that gives teachers the perspectives and resources they need to bring their best, most authentic self even under the most difficult circumstances—whether inside or outside of the classroom.

The Importance of Being Part of a Community of Educators

Educators are the golden geese of education, but until policymakers wake up to the importance of educator well-being, teachers can’t expect the system to begin taking better care of them. However, teachers can support each other.

Since the first TFYBS program in 2021, a growing community of educators has been gathering around the work, supporting each other through challenges and celebrating one another’s successes. TFYBS inspires mutually supportive bonds of friendship and camaraderie that are rare in education.

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Klusmann, U., O. Lüdtke, and D. Richter. (2016). Teachers’ Emotional Exhaustion Is Negatively Related to Students’ Achievement: Evidence from a Large-Scale Assessment Study. Journal of Educational Psychology 108(8), 1193–1203

The Learning Policy Institute. What’s the Cost of Teacher Turnover? September 13, 2017.