Remote-Learning from a Teacher’s Perspective: Mr. Robert Berry


Mr. Robert Berry

While learning in front of a screen for 7 hours a day is hard for the students, we have been overlooking members in our community facing their own struggles—teachers. Despite the fact that a lot of teachers at Northside have been teaching for a good number of years, it was not any easier for them to adjust to remote-learning. 

Unsurprisingly, CPS’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has called for changes in the teaching styles of many educators—from modifying previous grading policies, to figuring out how to successfully support each student through a computer screen.

As a continuation of “Remote-Learning from a Teacher’s Perspective,” here are Mr. Robert Berry’s thoughts on teaching from home:


What are your thoughts on the remote-learning situation?

We’re figuring out how to make it as normal as possible, given that this is a totally abnormal setting and way to do school … Speaking only for our building, I think we’re making the best of what the hand we’ve been dealt and that’s all you can control.

You as students, […] you are brilliant and y’all are the hardest working kids that are out there, and, you know, you’re the smartest kids that are out there, but if you’re not in a mental space where, you know, you feel like you have the time to do things right, or you have the ability to focus, literally all of that ceiling level that you have … you can’t reach that ceiling level if you’re not, you know, in a good place mentally. So, if there are things that we can do to help y’all out on the ‘learning-as-a-person’ side, that’s gotta take priority over the ‘learning-as-a-student.’

We wanna see you come out of this as physically and mentally and emotionally healthy as we can, and if that means shuffling things around in terms of, you know, the school side of things […] that’s something that we’re willing to do.

Do you prefer students with or without their cameras on? Why?

The way that I’ve always phrased it is, ‘it’s helpful for me to have the cameras on, but in no circumstance am I gonna say you have to do it.’

If I can see sort of furrowed brows, squinting eyes, that tells me that something is off … The goal here is not making it easy on me, the goal here is doing right by you all.

There may be a bunch of things in the background you’d rather not have people seeing, you may have just rolled out of bed, you may not have showered, you may not have combed hair … It’s better for me if you all have cameras, but that’s a minor concern compared to, ‘does it put you all in an awkward space or a self-conscious space, to have everybody looking at you.’

What is your policy on late work in this situation?

So, the late work policy really is, get it to me as soon as you can, and if it’s, you know, egregiously late or if it’s a habit, then we need to talk on it. If it is just a, like, ‘I don’t understand stuff,’ ‘I can’t get motivated,’ ok then that’s handled differently than a, ‘I’m just trying to make sure that my three younger siblings can get through remote schooling okay.’

There are so many other things going on right now [that] I would prefer not to jam you all up with ‘this came in an hour late, therefore I’m knocking 30% off the grade.’ Some of you all are working, some of you all are looking after younger siblings, some of you are looking after older members of your family … there’s a million different reasons why you might not be able to get to something exactly on time, out of your control.

If you’re worrying about, you know, sort of the school work and what somebody is gonna think of you for turning stuff in late. Like, you gotta flush that because […] there are times where we need to teach material, and there are times where we need to teach people, and this is one of those times where we need to be better at teaching the person than we do at teaching the material … We’re not ragging on you to get stuff done but at the same time, this thing needs to be done.

there are times where we need to teach material, and there are times where we need to teach people, and this is one of those times where we need to be better at teaching the person than we do at teaching the material

— Mr. Berry

How do you keep your students engaged throughout/outside the class period?

It’s a combination of trying to have interesting material, and trying to have times across the space of that, you know, 50 minutes or that 100 minute class, where you’re sort of shifting between me giving information and you all taking it and running with it, whether that be individual or in a small group … You know, time activities such that when, sort of all the brain research tells us ‘ok, you can spend X number of minutes on something before we start fading.

We try to find things in an American Lit classroom that are somehow – hopefully – strongly connected to the America that you see […] outside your windows in your home or outside our windows in the building. With AP Lang, it’s nonfiction, so we center it around the things that are happening in our world right now, and we look back to historical texts that give those some contexts.

Are students usually engaged during the class? If not, how does that affect you as a teacher?

Is there a decreased engagement from in the building? Yes. Is it within the normal bounds of what we have a right to expect? Absolutely. There’s a level of decreased engagement that we kind of have to see as inevitable … we’d be foolish to think that every minute of every class, when you all have laptops open, you are 100% on the ball, right? Everybody has different tabs open, you know, folks are checking their grades on Aspen, folks are wandering through Instagram or whatever … there are moments of that, like, we’d be foolish to think that every single person in the seat is locked in and ready to go 100% of the time. 

It’s about realizing that you all are dealing with so many other things, and trying to have a little bit of grace, and trying to have a little bit of charity with things like that because it’s not, we’re not operating under normal constraints anymore.

Y’all have a bunch of things going on and you’re doing as well as I think you can, in terms of blotting out those distractions. Is it perfect? No, but we have no right to expect that this is normal, that this is perfect, that this is the exact same as it would be in the building because it’s, it’s just not. 

Is it perfect? No, but we have no right to expect that this is normal, that this is perfect, that this is the exact same as it would be in the building because it’s, it’s just not.

— Mr. Berry

How are you balancing both your home and school life? 

Badly. [laugh] We’re all balancing very very poorly here … myself, other teachers that have kids, other families that I’ve talked to in my kids’ schools … it’s just a question of how much can we manage? Again, badly is a relative term. Are we doing the best we can? Sure. Is that perfect? No.

The analogy that I keep coming back to is that … whether it’s a student at Northside, whether it’s a teacher at Northside with other kids, whether it’s a family at my kid’s school with multiple kids trying to learn this online, we’re all juggling 25, 26, 27 different things every day and it’s a promise, it’s a guarantee you’re gonna drop something … It’s just a question of, can you live with dropping this, can you live with dropping that.

In terms of balancing things, I’m not there making sure that my own kids are sitting straight up at a chair, you know, looking at the screen all the time. They’re gonna wander away once in a while but they know their schedule and their teacher will sort of hold them accountable and bring them back when necessary. Does it mean that I’m less able to do laundry during the day? Yes, it does. That’s a ball that I’m comfortable dropping because I know I’ll be able to get to it at some point. Does it mean the kids have frozen pizza a little bit more often than they should? Yeah, but that’s a ball that I’m okay dropping. You know, we’re trying to prioritise them learning from their teachers. We’re trying to preserve whatever social interactions and mental health we can provide for them. I know that we’re gonna drop stuff, but are we okay with dropping the things that we’re dropping, and if not, then we make an adjustment. So, how are we managing with kids? We’re doing as well as could be expected – even though that means some stuff is falling through the cracks.


Compared to last year, how’s teaching from a remote setting now?

I think for me, the hardest part is directing traffic between my virtual classroom and the two virtual classrooms that I have for, you know, my fifth grader and my second grader .. It’s, you know, it’s not the biggest house, it’s not like everybody has their own room. Inevitably, there’s people walking through backgrounds …. So, the biggest challenge for me is sort of managing those physical spaces, because […] it’s easy for one of them to come and wander through and just, you know, check on the other one or ask questions or start – because they’re siblings – they bother each other and they make a sport of it. 

There are so many things that go into that. The amount of work that I think I’m doing for classes now is probably greater than what I would do in an ordinary like, ‘y’all show up to room 209’ kind of scenario … Now, in terms of the […] previous best practices in terms of small groups or partner work, or how we manage time, those kind of go out the window, so it’s relearning a lot of that, you know, ‘building the plane as we have it in mid-air.

If I have to figure out how to handle two hours worth of time, […]  two hours of work per week, that’s different than managing what amounts to 200 minutes of work a week, including sort of like regular homework deadlines and long-term pieces …  

On the flip side, it’s easier because everybody kind of knows what the rules are going in, whereas last spring we had sort of three different sets of guidance at any given point over the spring

Whether it was something that I was doing differently or something that the building had decided to do differently, or something that was different coming down from, you know, CPS on high, the rules were changing pretty frequently in the spring, and that made it difficult, whereas now we’re all kind of working and we know what the rules are, we know what the terms are supposed to be. 

It’s also easier in terms of what my kids’ schools are doing, because in the spring, they would have a one-hour meet with their teacher three times a week, and the rest would sort of be small group sessions […] other than that, they were left to their own devices … they’re wandering around the house, and they’re getting way more Netflix time than they should, and way more times hangin’ out and really doing nothing … it’s easier now because they have sort of defined things that they’re supposed to be doing, and that leads to […] less frustration because they’re not left on their own as much.


What advice would you give your last-year-self from remote-learning?

I think I would’ve  benefited from a touch of perspective of like, at some point or another things are gonna shuffle again, and things are gonna shift again and we’re gonna be back in a spot where either A, it’s a little bit more quote, ‘normal,’ or B it’s gonna be a spot where we have a little bit more control over the situation.

The advice that I would give to last-year’s self is sort of recognize that the situation, whatever it be, is sort of temporary, and ‘be willing to sort of roll with the punches a little bit more’ …  I think as teachers most of us are naturally planners, and most of us naturally … wanna work with a sort of schedule-defined environment and me, I certainly fall probably more in that line more than the average teacher does. 

Recognizing that things are fluid and being okay with a ‘well, okay, that didn’t go so well,’ that’s okay cause stuff’s gonna change and that hiccup is not gonna be a permanent one … just sort of recognizing that ‘this too shall pass’ would be a good piece of advice to keep in mind.