My favorite thing about the first weeks of school is all the students who pledge to do better than they did last year. Teachers, too. Inside of a school, hope and optimism can be infectious at least in August and September.
I’m proud to start my 32nd year still believing I can be a better teacher.
But I have never much liked the phrase "back to school." Mostly, it is a marketing slogan to sell loose leaf and binders, pencils and pens, computers and backpacks and all the other commercial tools of learning.
It’s the word "back" that really bothers me because it's a reminder of how little of the education system fundamentally changes from year to year.
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Despite regular bludgeoning by political interests and the news media, schools, school districts and departments of education remain hamstrung by their own inefficiency and disorganization and are in simultaneous and perpetual states of reform and ossification.
Pandemic didn't drive lasting change
The pandemic compelled us to make major adaptations to keep schools going – or at least pretend to – but we emerged having evolved little and then mostly reverted to the status quo, paying lip service to all the ideals.
Yes, there is a much greater consciousness about equity and social justice among educators – though a lot of us have pushed for that for a long time.
But so much hasn’t changed at all. The hierarchy still gives the most power to those who understand the least about teaching and learning. Also unchanged are the authoritarian manner in which students and teachers are too often treated; the grim transactional nature governing so much of what happens to teachers and students; and the awful practice of throwing new teachers into what are often the most challenging situations and then demanding instant results.
Not surprisingly, this has led to a teacher shortage that in some places is a crisis.
I'm one of the lucky teachers
I am lucky. Very lucky. When I was hired in the fall of 1992, few teaching jobs were available, and I did not get offered one until four weeks into the term. So my first back to school wasn’t till the next August. Then a budget crisis threatened reshuffling and layoffs. I was the last hired and would have been the first to go if it had come to that.
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Those first weeks, the school absorbed all the new students and fights broke out as gang rivals discovered each other and pecking orders were asserted.
I remember breaking up a lot of those fights, and I remember all of us – teachers and administrators – trying to minimize them and any other behavior that could result in a student being transferred until after the school’s official enrollment was finalized. Once the number of students was locked in, our jobs were safe – even if our enrollment went way down – and students were then held accountable.
Our job security dictated a different set of rules; it epitomized the corruption of an education system in which every important decision was – and still is – about something other than the success and well-being of the students. Of course, everyone loves when we succeed, but when that happens it is almost always in spite of the system.
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If we truly prioritized the needs of students, we would do a better job of preparing people to become teachers, and we would make their first months and years much easier and enjoyable. We would increase salaries enough to attract more people with the talent and temperament to be transformative educators.
What we need in new teachers
What we need are people who love kids, especially when those kids are at their worst. We need people with endless patience and empathy to go along with a deep knowledge and passion for what they are teaching and enthusiasm for sharing it with students.
We need teachers who are secure in themselves, know how to be conscious of their own faults, and not only have a strong sense of fairness but also can understand and work with the limited morality of children and gently nudge them toward a greater concern for others.
And we need idealists determined to see the good in everything and everyone, including the many children who come to school believing there is nothing good about themselves.
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If we really wanted to transform schools, we would have a massive investment to get people like that into every classroom at every grade level, and we would nurture and mentor them so that they keep teaching long enough to become really good at it.
And we would eliminate the need for teachers to be subversive to do right by our students – resisting standardized-test-driven curriculum and ridiculous mandates and even, when necessary, unplugging a classroom phone to suppress a sometimes absurdly rapid string of interruptions to learning.
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Give teachers and students more power
As long as we rely on the selfless and the martyrs to be our most devoted and successful teachers, there will never be enough. Not even close. Nor enough people willing to swim upstream against the currents of authoritarian leadership and cynical calculations.
And as long as people sitting in district and department of education offices are paid 50 to 100 to 200% more than a classroom teacher, then parents will continue to have to hope for a selfless educator to teach their children.
I'm not paid for all my time teaching: It's pathetic my generation is OK with this scam
So forgive me if I’m not inspired by any of the back-to-work motivational emails of so-called education leaders. Until they are willing to transfer the power to students and their teachers in the classrooms, where nearly all of the important work of education happens, their language of hope and transformation is a fraud. Until idealistic rhetoric is matched by a commitment to teacher and student empowerment and collaboration, it's irresponsible to believe any of it.
Students deserve more than empty promises
If those with the power wanted to inspire us, they could begin by being honest about the collective failures and dysfunctions of the system and make a humble commitment for collaborative change. It might reassure all of us and prevent at least a few resignations and retirements and maybe slow the exodus of students from the school district in which I teach.
For now, though, it is time for my colleagues and me to bring the magic and help students transcend all that. Students where I teach will return from summer vacations that for many of them are nothing more than heat advisories to go along with ongoing trauma and exhaustion and stress. They need and deserve more than empty promises and abstract goals.
For now, it is time to support all the new teachers brave enough to accept a job that so many now disdain. Help them feel the joy so they can endure long enough that they and their students might one day get the respect that is so long overdue.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, including "Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher" and his new novel, "Light Man." Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Schools wouldn't have teacher shortages if they helped, supported them