Teaching Profession

‘Abbott Elementary’ Star Sheryl Lee Ralph: ‘Get Your Teachers the Money They Deserve’

By Madeline Will — May 08, 2023 4 min read
Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, star of Abbott Elementary, speaks during a special education town hall event for Teacher Appreciation week, at Walt Whitman High School, in Bethesda, Md., on May 7, 2023.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph plays a teacher on TV, but she knows the challenges facing the profession are all too real.

The “Abbott Elementary” star joined leaders from the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association on Sunday to discuss what true teacher appreciation looks like in 2023. The town hall, which was hosted at Walt Whitman High School here, kicked off National Teacher Appreciation Week during a year when educators are at the center of cultural and political divisions, and many schools can’t find enough teachers to fill classrooms.

Ralph—who won an Emmy this year for her depiction of Barbara Howard, the veteran kindergarten teacher on the popular sitcom—said raising teacher pay and forgiving student loans for teachers must be a priority. When one teacher said she made $30,000, Ralph reacted in horror.

“How do you expect people to make an actual living?” she said in a response to a question from Education Week afterwards. “How do you expect people to do their best with our greatest natural resource, our children? [Teachers] truly deserve more. They truly deserve better. And we cannot say that enough.”

She continued: “America needs to get right with its thinking, ‘cause if you don’t want to pay teachers, that is actually saying out loud, ‘I don’t want to educate our children.’”

The national average teacher salary this school year is $68,469, according to an NEA analysis. But salaries vary significantly across the country, and when adjusted for inflation, teachers are making on average about $3,600 less than they did a decade ago, the teachers’ union found.

During the event, Ralph decried inequities in school funding, leading to students in high-poverty schools getting fewer resources and support than their peers in more affluent schools. (Ralph is married to Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat who has proposed a massive funding plan for schools after a judge ruled that the state’s current funding system was unconstitutional and discriminatory against poorer districts.)

“How is it that we think in any way—even in a fake television school—that a child should be going to the 3rd grade, and [their] book is five to 10 years old?” she said. “How does that happen in our country? And people are not rising up every day, demanding that every child in every school, no matter what the ZIP code is, gets the same level of education?

“We can hear phrases like, ‘the dumbing down of America.’ But when you intentionally put forth the effort to make sure that some succeed, and others do not succeed, this is unacceptable. Our outlook must change because all of us must demand more for all of our kids, all of our students, and not just some.”

How parents can help support teachers

Over the past couple years, a growing national movement for policies that center “parents’ rights” in schools has often pitted parents and teachers against each other. Teachers have been accused of “indoctrinating” students on topics like racism and LGBTQ+ issues.

That needs to change, the advocates said Sunday.

From left, Keith Kelsey, a music educator from Maryland; Erin Freeman, a high school U.S. History teacher from Florida; Mandi Jung, a 7th grade science teacher from Minnesota; actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, star of Abbott Elementary; National Education Association President Becky Pringle; National Parent Teacher Association President Anna King; and USA Today education reporter Alia Wong, laugh on stage during a special education town hall event for Teacher Appreciation week at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., on May 7, 2023.

“We’re separated right now—parents versus teachers,” said Anna King, the president of the National PTA. “We have to stand together. There’s a ‘T’ in PTA for a reason because we know that parents and teachers working together are successful in making an impact. ... You give the teachers, the schools the resources they need; you let the parents be a part of that education—that’s how our kids are going to be successful.”

And parents must advocate for teachers, Ralph said.

“Fight to get your teachers the money that they deserve,” she said. “I do not understand why we take our greatest natural resource—our children—[and] give them to a building and people, and then figure, ‘Well, they should just be happy to have my child.’ [Teachers] need to be paid to prepare your child for the future. ... Why [can’t we] get it in our heads that they are deserving? There’s some parents who look at teachers as daycare workers.”

Yet the pandemic-related school shutdowns was a learning experience for parents, who got a firsthand look at teachers’ jobs, King said.

It might have also been a turning point in their relationship, she added: “We’ll never go back to where we were, and what [it] was.”

That’s why it’s so important parents and teachers continue to be partners and not be on opposing sides, King said: “The parents across this country have the power to create change for the education system, and we have to hold the people accountable that are making the decisions that affect education.”

Teachers are ‘the heart’ of ‘Abbott’

Teachers have said they feel seen and represented by “Abbott Elementary,” which depicts the personal and professional lives of teachers in a Philadelphia elementary school. Nearly three-fourths of teachers and administrators who have seen the show said they thought it was a realistic portrayal of education and educators, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center last month.

See also

Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, Quinta Brunson, and Tyler James Williams play teachers on the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Teachers say the show resonates with their experience.
Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, Quinta Brunson, and Tyler James Williams play teachers on the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Teachers say the show resonates with their experience.
Gilles Mingasson/ABC

Ralph said it was important to her that the ABC sitcom showed teachers as “real human beings.”

She told reporters afterwards that her performance in the show is dedicated to the many educators in her family—her father, a lifelong educator who ended his career as a college professor; her aunt, “who went from a reluctant teacher to a blue-ribbon teacher;" her niece, who is getting her master’s degree and Ph.D. in education at New York University; her brother, who is a special education teacher in Albany, N.Y.; and her sister-in-law, who is a retired principal.

“I’m so thankful that we can raise up all educators in ‘Abbott Elementary’ for all the good work that they do ... in a show where what they do is not the butt of the joke, but the heart of the whole show,” she said. “And teachers and educators, they deserve it—and the janitor, too.”

Events

Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Teachers' Favorite Reads This Summer
Teachers shared some of their summer book selections, with a wide variety of subject matter and genres.
2 min read
Woman reading book in hammock
Liz Yap/Education Week and iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession The Truth About Teachers' Summers
Teachers endure many misperceptions about their jobs. Perhaps the most egregious has to do with their summer break.
5 min read
Orange sandals by a pool.
iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words How This 'Goofy Science Teacher' Made It to the U.S. Open in Golf
High school science teacher and golf coach Colin Prater just played in one of the world's most prestigious golf tournaments.
6 min read
Colin Prater hits his tee shot on the 10th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open golf tournament on June 12, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C.
Colin Prater hits his tee shot on the 10th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open golf tournament on June 12, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C.
Frank Franklin II/AP
Teaching Profession Teachers: Start Your School Supplies Shopping Now With These Discounts
As teachers start back-to-school shopping, Education Week compiled a list of educator discounts that can reduce costs.
3 min read
Photo of school supplies.
iStock