For new teachers, entering the field of education has always been an exciting, if daunting, prospect. Helping students achieve their full potential is richly rewarding, after all. But once the COVID-19 pandemic dissipates, a major challenge awaits teachers new and old.
The health crisis has opened new gaps in student achievement and exacerbated existing ones, threatening the future of education. Low-income students have endured the worst of the pandemic's deleterious effects.
Teachers, new and experienced alike, will be vital in reversing these effects. By addressing the challenges of a post-pandemic world, teachers can save a generation of students from long-term damage.
The widening gap.
The future of education hinges on equal access and participation, but COVID-19 has further widened the gap between the haves and the have nots. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that lower-income students are 55% more likely to delay graduation due to COVID-19 than their more affluent peers. On top of that, the bureau found that COVID-19 nearly doubled the gap between low- and high-income students in expected grade point average. The pandemic's disruption to students' ability to succeed isn't just profound—it's heterogeneous.
These gaps, rooted in socioeconomic disparities and exacerbated by pandemic-induced disruptions, will only get worse if left unaddressed. It's easy to point fingers at schools and, broadly, the educational system. But teachers are the educational professionals who have the most day-to-day contact with the students. They could potentially have the greatest impact in narrowing the achievement gap.
For teachers, advancing the future of education means advocating for every student. But that's easier said than done, as the cascading adverse effects of the pandemic disproportionately afflict socioeconomically challenged students.
Some of these effects are beyond teachers' control. For instance, a Tulsa School Experiences & Early Development study of approximately 1,000 low-income families in Tulsa, Oklahoma, determined that 46% of responding parents had lost their jobs or had decreased work hours and 49% experienced food insecurity since the start of the pandemic.
Elsewhere, Anna Johnson, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and one of the authors of the Tulsa study, observed another technological hurdle that teachers will need to clear post-pandemic.
"These low-income kids are also more likely to have unreliable internet access," Johnson said. "Some of them don't have devices beyond a parent's smartphone, which makes connecting to teachers and classmates for learning nearly impossible."
Other cascading effects of the pandemic on students and families include depression, lack of sleep, declining physical health, and disruption in household routines—and each of these could harm a student's performance. Teachers need to be ready to meet the call and help their students after the pandemic subsides.
Making a difference.
For teachers, guiding the future of education means getting involved and advocating for their students. Teachers can't fix all their students' pandemic-related problems, but there are essential steps that they can take.
Give your students extra emotional support during and after the pandemic. The goal is to lift your students' spirits with words and body language that are inviting and accepting to everyone. However you communicate with them, take the time to greet and check in with each student every day.
Make the tasks that you assign meaningful. Different students have different learning styles, so apply every teaching technique you've learned to make learning engaging and equitable for every student.
No one expects teachers to shoulder the entire responsibility for shaping the future of education. But they play a vital role in helping students of every socioeconomic level work through these difficult circumstances and bring out their best. If you're interested in making a difference, there are plenty of ways to get the education you need.