R.E.A.L.® Teacher Feature: Shaila Richmond & William Berry

Thank you to Shaila Richmond & William Berry for sharing their REAL lives with us! Shaila and William teach seventh grade English and History, respectively, at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Here are their thoughts on discussion, R.E.A.L.®, and learning.


Shaila Richmond and William Berry, Richmond, VA

William Berry and Shaila Richmond

Current School:

St. Catherine’s School

Can you describe yourself as a student in three words? 

Shaila: Overachiever, quiet, thoughtful. 

William: Curious, lazy, honestly a little bit apathetic. I’m not your typical “Type A turn into a teacher.”

Who was your favorite teacher, and why? 

Shaila: My English teacher that I had twice in high school, Miss Brown. She really brought everything we read to life. I remember vividly: we were writing haiku one day, and she put bamboo all over the classroom, and we just sat and wrote. She really brought the literature to life in a way I hadn’t really experienced before. 

William: I had a couple really good teachers, but one of the reasons I became a history teacher is I never really felt like I had a great history teacher: it was all names and facts and memorization. My dad is a huge Civil War buff, and honestly, he was my favorite teacher, because he made history more interesting. And my French teachers in middle and high school were wonderful for their engagement with and interest in students and their ability to demonstrate the bigger picture. 

When it comes to class discussion, what is your “why?” What feels compelling and important about teaching these skills? 

Shaila: Teaching the skills themselves really gives my students the framework to understand how to verbalize what they’re thinking, and it kind of forces everyone to speak in a way that they feel comfortable with. Before R.E.A.L.®, I would have informal class discussions, and the same couple of kids would always be the ones speaking. 

In our formal R.E.A.L. ® Discussions, though, everyone feels comfortable talking. They know that everyone will be listening to them and building upon what they’re saying. I’ve really noticed the development of confidence in a lot of students, and really that has been the most impactful thing to me. I love to see that when they have the floor, they really can dive deep into what they’re thinking and don’t feel like they have to rush, because everyone is listening and going to build upon what they’re talking about.

In the formal R.E.A.L. ® Discussion, though, everyone feels comfortable talking. They know that everyone will be listening to them and building upon what they’re saying.


William: Discussion is important for me as a history teacher, because you want kids to be able to communicate with each other –  and not just share their point of view, but actively listen and hear other points of view in order to build upon those ideas. When you learn how to have a discussion, learning how to listen is a big piece of it. 

One thing we’ve talked a lot about this year is that when you learn by discussing and sharing your ideas verbally, it helps you make connections with things you didn’t understand before.  

We’re actively trying to teach the kids how to learn, and having a discussion is a way for them to make sense of information and build on it in a way that’s really important at this age. 

Thinking back to your first R.E.A.L. ® Discussion, what were you worried about going into it? Did anything surprise you?

Shaila: I think the biggest thing for me – because my students expressed this being a concern – was my taking a back seat during the discussion. Before we started, they felt that the teacher had to be part of every discussion. At first, I kind of agreed with them, because that’s what I’ve done in the past. 

When I literally sat back at my desk, I was surprised by how they took off with it. I told them: I’m back here, I’m listening, I’m taking notes, but don’t look at me – pretend I’m not here. After the first one we did, I felt a lot more comfortable and confident. And I told them: this first time is kind of like a soft launch. It doesn’t need to be great, and I’ll have some feedback for things you can work on for next time. That really took a lot of the pressure off them. 

William: I had similar thoughts. I’ve done discussions before, and I’ve always been comfortable sitting back and listening and letting the kids run it themselves toward the end of the year. But we’ve always done that as one big group, so I can be there and jump in if needed – especially if someone brings up a difficult topic, or if someone says something that may come off as insensitive to some people or needs some more context to fully understand. 

I’ve always felt like I have to be part of a discussion to serve almost as a safety net. The biggest hurdle for me was dividing my group in two, and having two discussions going on – because how could I be the safety net for both? Over time, I have gained confidence that, given the tools, the kids are able to be there for each other – and ultimately, I’m still there if they need me.

Over time, I have gained confidence that, given the tools, the kids are able to be there for each other – and ultimately, I’m still there if they need me.


As a team, how do you go about planning for R.E.A.L. ® Discussions? How have you figured out how to work with one another to make sure there’s alignment across your content areas? 

Shaila: We talk a lot about the spacing of the discussions and their themes. Mine usually lead into a writing assignment. In terms of planning, I’ll tell William my writing assignment and ask: what do you think about these discussion questions? And he’ll do the same with me, and we bounce questions off each other to determine if they make sense and if they would lead seamlessly into the assignment.  

William: We don’t really sit together and long-term plan, but every day we’re bouncing discussion questions off each other and asking things like, how can we make this more open-ended? How can we make this more understandable? We’ve also talked about how to examine our discussion themes and organize them more in the coming years, so we can align themes happening in both of our classes.

Thinking back on the past year, was there a moment where a student had a breakthrough that really stuck out to you? 

William: The “I agree” hand signal – students use it all the time. They use it in advisory, they use it in the hallways, they use it at basketball practices, they use it seriously, they make fun of it, they use it in a variety of contexts, but they use it. 

It creates an immediate shared connection – and it’s a time saver. It really helps control those comments that come one right after the other that all say the same thing. It’s cool for that. 

But I also think it’s important in a girls school setting like ours for building community and building connection immediately through shared interests or similar thoughts. It’s now a shared language they have. 

Another thing is that I see students listening better. I can tell they are listening better because usually I was the only person to restate something during discussion, and now a lot of them do that with their friends. I hear them restating things, I hear them rephrasing things, I hear them conducting more active listening in general.

What is your go-to reward for grading a big pile of homework? 

Shaila: Sleep. Or Instagram. I’ll tell myself: if I get through this stack within an hour, I’ll go on Instagram for an hour. 

William: I make myself finish a class period or set or whatever, before I go for my run.

What inspires you? 

Shaila: I’ll be cheesy. Mr. Berry inspires me. I’m in my ninth year teaching and my second year at St. Catherine’s. I’ve definitely had to think about how to make myself a better teacher. William definitely helps push me to be my best. 

William: I was going to say Shaila, too, because she does. That’s the reason I send her all the stuff I make, and she does the same for me. So thanks, Shaila. 

But bigger than Shaila, I would say our whole team and school in general inspire me. I’m lucky to be a part of this school. I’ve been here for nine years, and my wife is a teacher right across the street at the all boys school. We have a lot of the same conversations we’re having right now. She inspires me, too.

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