Alumni in Action: Educator Sean Wilson ’16 shares his experience with online learning

The high school teacher discusses the shift to remote learning and its impact on himself and his students in his first year of teaching.

Like many educators across the nation, Sean Wilson ’16 faced a shift in educational practices due to COVID-19. Wilson is a high school social studies and English teacher at the Durham School of the Arts, an arts-based public school in Durham, North Carolina.

Wilson, who graduated from Elon in 2016 with a degree in philosophy, did not always know that his path would lead to teaching. After graduation, Wilson worked at Peacehaven Farms in Whitsett, a sustainable farm that connects people with special needs to their community, before moving to Pittsburgh to begin graduate studies in philosophy at Duquesne University.

While enrolled in his graduate studies, Wilson realized he enjoyed the experiences he had teaching and learning at Peacehaven Farms more than completing independent research. This led Wilson to pursue a career that allowed him to explore his passion for teaching. Wilson transferred into Duke University’s Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, a year-long program focused on cultivating teachers for Durham Public Schools.

After completing the program in 2019, Wilson secured a position at the Durham School of the Arts and began his first year of teaching. “I love being able to live out my values on a daily basis, build relationships with awesome students, and connect with the community in a significant way,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s first year as a teacher was not what he expected. As COVID-19 spread, many schools across the United States began to make the switch to remote learning from home. While this shift is feasible to some, many families are facing hardships that make an at-home learning environment difficult. Wilson discusses this shift to remote learning and its impact on himself and his students.

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted your day-to-day life?

A: It’s been pretty major. In some ways, my day-to-day life has been easier. I no longer need to print out, staple, hole-punch, pass out and collect hundreds of papers, now that we’ve gone online, for instance. However, mostly things have just gotten much more boring, since COVID-19 canceled in-person instruction. There are many tiny, delightful moments when teaching, such as silly jokes the students will share or the look students get when they have an epiphany. I don’t get to experience these anymore, now that instruction has moved online.

Q: How was the shift to online learning? 

A: Overall, the shift to online learning has eviscerated the classroom community that I had been working so hard to develop over the course of the year. A goal of mine as a teacher is to get students to work with each other, share their experiences with each other and consider important issues together so as to develop a democratic community within the classroom. This is simply much more challenging to do virtually, at least with the tools that we currently have access to. Many students have told me that they are shocked by how much they miss school, since it’s a daily opportunity to work with their friends, catch up with their favorite teachers, participate in sports and clubs, etc. A few students enjoy the independence of online learning, but it mostly reduces school to its most boring aspects (independently completing assignments).

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your students and their families?  

A: It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on for many families, but overall I believe that COVID-19 has exacerbated existent inequalities. Of course, the transition to online learning and social distancing was a challenge to everyone, but some students were well equipped to make this transition with steady access to a computer, the Internet, a comfortable and quiet space in which to complete work, family members who also work from home to support and encourage their completion of online assignments, relatively few household responsibilities, and enriching activities to engage in at home. I’m very happy for those students. On the other hand, some students have to share devices with siblings or other family members or take care of younger siblings throughout the day. I know of at least a few students who have parents/guardians who work essential jobs, and now are home alone much of the day. Of course, students who rely on one-to-one teacher support or motivation to complete their work are also simply at a disadvantage in the current learning environment. This includes students with learning disabilities, students who have had negative experiences with learning, students who are still learning English, and students who simply don’t see the point of school.

To be honest, there are many students who I went from seeing for an hour every day, to not hearing from at all. While I’m sure some were just happy to get an early summer vacation, and are content playing their favorite video games, I also worry about the children who relied on school for structure, support and connection, and are now living in relative isolation from the wider community that public schools can provide.

Q: What advice would you give your students during these uncertain times? 

A: The advice I’d give my students is the same advice I’ve been trying to give myself: stick to a routine, keep an organized space, limit screen time, get outside whenever possible, take deep breaths and be responsible with their exposure to others. I would encourage them to read anything that sparks their interest and to journal at least a few times a week in order to keep their minds sharp and reflective. I would also encourage them to reach out to their teachers for support if needed.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.