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.
“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.
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.”