The year has been a grueling one for students, taking a toll on their mental health and academic performance. But behind the computer screens were educators who improvised, innovated and endured teachers and staff determined to make the best of an impossible situation.

Berkeleyside reached out to parents and principals across the district, asking them to nominate educators who went above and beyond for their students during distance learning. The list of names was long, the stories touching. 

Angelica Pérez, a reading specialist, met with a student all summer, unpaid, to make sure she could read at grade level. Robin Bogoshian, a second-grade teacher, assigned a research project on inspiring Black women that made its way onto Amanda Gorman’s Twitter. Valerie Kratzer — who coordinated an army of volunteers to bring technology, food, books and office furniture to families — worked 12-hour days and would fall asleep at her desk thinking of everything she still needed to do.

We heard about too many superb educators to profile them all. But we wanted to share the stories of three teachers, one library specialist, and one family engagement coordinator whose perseverance and commitment to Berkeley kids moved us or brought us to tears.

They will rise to the occasion

Susi Lopez poses for a photo at her distance learning workstation on May 31, 2021. Lopez set up her virtual classroom in the corner of her sister’s living room in Richmond. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Susi Lopez is known for setting the bar high. When the pandemic moved class online, Lopez, who teaches A.P. Spanish and Spanish for Native Speakers, decided there was one thing that wouldn’t change: her expectations for students.

“I just could not allow myself to make it so watered down that they would walk away with nothing or very little for next year. Life goes on, and so does their education,” said Lopez, who is in her 11th year of teaching and co-chairs the World Languages Department. 

She set to work recreating a curriculum that would challenge her A.P. students, which are an ethnically and economically diverse mix, rare for an advanced class at Berkeley High. Every day on Zoom, Lopez’s students gave impromptu presentations—in Spanish—on topics ranging from the conflict in Gaza to environmental issues.

“I want them to know that I have a really serious job and we have a serious challenge ahead of us,” Lopez said. “Year after year, the kids just rise to the occasion, and this year was no different.”

“Ms. Lopez runs her classroom in a no-nonsense manner, but she clearly loves all of her students,” said Hannah Freedman, 18. She speaks to her students like family, calling them mi amor, but rarely makes exceptions. “It’s that strictness that you could get from a really loving mother or father.” As a result, A.P. Spanish “is by far the class I learned the most in throughout all of distance learning,” Freedman said.  

For Lopez, who immigrated from Mexico at age 22 without a high school diploma and put herself through college in the United States, it’s important that the native Spanish speakers in her class feel empowered to succeed in school. 

“I want them to feel proud of being Latinos and being bilingual and having Latino families, but I also want them to really take seriously the opportunity of education and hopefully pursue a four-year degree,” Lopez said.

The born kindergarten teacher

Bill Briggs poses for a photo in the bear cave in his kindergarten classroom at Thousand Oaks Elementary on June 1, 2021. Construction of the bear cave was a collaboration between Briggs and his father. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

For Bill Briggs, teaching kindergarten is more than a job. It’s who he is.

“I just identify myself as Teacher Bill,” said Bill Briggs, who has taught for 12 years at Thousand Oaks Elementary. Teaching is “when I feel that I can be most myself,” said Briggs, who always pours himself into his job, but this year more than ever.

“I think he was really scared when the pandemic hit that he wasn’t going to be able to help his kids,” said Karen Tompkins, whose four children all had Teacher Bill, including her youngest, now a first grader. Briggs responded by “recreating the wheel of kindergarten,” Tompkinsth said.

Last spring, Briggs designed an interactive online world, with themed rooms that changed every month, replete with a cartoon version of himself, a clickable bookshelf (featuring Teacher Bill reading books aloud), and art projects that students could work on in their free time. “My daughter could have spent all day in those rooms,” said Renee Jansen. On top of designing a new digital curriculum and putting together bags of supplies for students, Briggs visited last year’s kindergarteners at home, reading to them in their backyards. 

“It was just so obvious that he was spending every waking minute—weekends, evenings— thinking about these kids.”

“It was just so obvious that he was spending every waking minute—weekends, evenings— thinking about these kids,” said Tomkins, calling Briggs a “born kindergarten teacher.”

“When you get him in the classroom, the Teacher Bill magic turns on,” Tomkins said.  

The night before students returned in person in March “was like the night before Christmas,” Briggs said. In the months that followed, he did everything he could to pack in hands-on experiences, from raising baby chicks and to planting flowers in the garden.

“I don’t feel like my daughter has missed out on any learning and that feels kind of amazing to say,” Jansen said. “She developed academically this year and a big piece of that is Teacher Bill’s gentle guidance and his total dedication to his classroom and to his kids.” 

When Margaret Murphy’s kindergartener Clementine learned that Teacher Bill would be featured in Berkeleyside, she confirmed it was the right choice. “Teacher Bill should be famous,” Clementine told her mom. “He’s a great teacher.”

‘Whatever they need’

Carol Finis Perez in her office at Washington Elementary on June 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

When her families need her, Carol Perez is there. In the last eight years at Berkeley Unified, she has attended court hearings, substance abuse workshops and meetings about special education rights, immigration status and transitional housing.

As the Family Engagement and Equity Specialist for Washington and Oxford elementary schools, Perez makes sure families have “whatever they need,” whether that’s a bag of school supplies, money to make rent for the month, or a shoulder to lean on — all in the service of educational equity.

“Whatever it is that I’m spending my time doing has to be toward the objective of closing the opportunity gap,” Perez said. “I focus on those families that make up the bottom of the opportunity gap that tend to be not served by our district and whose kids are therefore left behind academically.” 

She starts getting to know families when their kids enter kindergarten. By the time their kids are ready to graduate from elementary school, Perez has been with them through thick and thin.

“Sometimes this work is just really heart-wrenching.”

One mother first came to Perez when her child was in kindergarten and she was enduring regular domestic violence but wasn’t ready to leave her relationship. Even after she separated from her partner four years later, the harassment continued. When she brought her children to a park so they could spend time with their father, her abuser, Perez accompanied them, providing comfort and protection during the ordeal.

“Sometimes this work is just really heart-wrenching,” Perez, who survived domestic violence as a child, said through tears. 

“All of us carry a level of trauma as we’re working with these families,” Perez said, referring to the staff at the Office of Family Engagement and Equity. “Because of all the things that they’re going through, and then we all have our own histories.”

This year, the pandemic exacerbated challenges that families living in poverty already faced. “So many families had the type of job where you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she explained. During the pandemic, parents lost work, which brought food and housing insecurity. “It makes you realize how close all of us are to that line of being able to buy food or not. Families are literally a paycheck away from homelessness.” 

In response, Perez partnered with the Berkeley Public Schools Fund to get money directly into the hands of families. The fund solicited donations and signed the checks, but Perez said it’s not always easy to get families to accept help. “Sometimes our most needy families are the ones that are most reluctant to accept the benefits,” she said, adding that undocumented families can be leery of receiving services, worried that it could somehow be counted against them. That’s where Perez comes in: By developing a trusting relationship with families, she can get them the help they need.

The community stalwart

Mary Patterson in her classroom at Longfellow Middle School on June 1, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Mary Patterson seems to know just about every family at Longfellow Middle School. For Patterson, who started teaching at Berkeley Unified in 1990, one of the best parts of her job is teaching every kid in the family.

“I’ve taught so many cousins and brothers and sisters. I hope it makes them feel more known and cared for,” said Patterson, who teaches 6th and 8th grade history in Longfellow’s dual immersion program. 

Especially this year, when many students felt anxious about turning their cameras on, making students feel comfortable was especially important. 

“Though sometimes it can be annoying, too.” Patterson uses her family connections as leverage to keep students accountable. “I’ll say ‘Fabian, how’s Juliana doing? And ‘Juliana, tell Fabian to do his homework.’”

 “I’ve taught so many cousins and brothers and sisters.”

When Patterson started teaching in person during the afternoons, she was floored by how emotional it made her feel to be back with the students. “Nothing compares to the real energy in the classroom. The next morning when I started teaching on Zoom, I wanted to cry, just thinking about how much better it was in person.” 

Still, even on Zoom, Patterson’s lessons got rave reviews, which Patterson managed with the help of her proctor, 13-year-old Wren Fraser, whose sister Patterson also taught. The pair met every day, discussing how she might improve her lesson-planning and grading student work together. Teaching online can be lonely, Patterson said, and she appreciates the camaraderie. 

“I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” Fraser said. “So it’s fun to talk to her about her perspective. She’s really fun, and she’ll try and get to know you. Everyone likes her class, even if they may not like school.”

The book whisperer

Jess Reich, library media specialist at Thousand Oaks, poses for a photo in the library. Credit: Jerome Paulos.

Jess Reich is the resident book whisperer at Thousand Oaks library. As the library media specialist, she teaches library class and helps kids peruse the stacks to find just the right book. When the library shut in March, Reich had to figure out another way to get books into the hands of kids.

“Books are a comfort. You want to read something you’ve already read, or you want to disappear from this crazy world right now.”

So Reich sent surveys to students, asking them about what they wanted to read. Did they want funny books? Scary books? More pictures or fewer pictures? Kids requested books about everything from Norse mythology to chickens as pets.

Then, she handpicked books for just about every single one of the school’s second through fifth graders. She did that every five or so weeks during distance learning and every week once students returned to campus (the library remained closed for the remainder of the year). She also put together grab bags of books for the kindergarteners and first graders. Over the course of the year, Reich helped loan out 8,638 books, more than in a typical year.

The personalization took a lot of work, requiring that Reich to be in the library early mornings and weekends, meticulously selecting just the right book for just the right student.  

“It was a lot of work, but it was a real priority for me to try to help the students still have that sense of, ‘reading is fun and I want to get my hands on the books that I want to read,” said Reich, who described her mission as helping students discover why they want to read.

“We want the kids to feel ownership and to feel excitement about books. It was so rewarding to hand out the books and have the kids say ‘Yes, I got what I wanted!’” Reich said. 

The book selection process gave Reich insight into the minds of elementary students during the pandemic. More than usual, Reich saw kids opting for comforting classics and other-worldly fantasy and adventure books, with titles like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe and Dragon Pearl. 

“I think it’s because they want to escape into this magical land,” Reich said. “Books are a comfort. You want to read something you’ve already read, or you want to disappear from this crazy world right now.”

Correction: Karen’s last name is Tomkins, not Thompson.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...