Teachers do vital work under difficult conditions—and they must take better care of themselves, two of the stars on ABC’s hit workplace comedy “Abbott Elementary” told thousands of teacher leaders and educators on Sunday.
On the first day of the National Education Association’s representative assembly, union delegates heard from Tyler James Williams, who plays substitute teacher Gregory Eddie, and Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays the no-nonsense kindergarten teacher, Barbara Howard. “Abbott Elementary,” which follows a group of teachers and their principal at a Philadelphia public school, has connected with educators across the country, who say the sitcom is funny, relatable, and encouraging.
“When given impossible situations with limited resources and time, in every walk of life, educators get the job done,” Williams said. “Teachers are the most versatile and heroic workforce on the planet. Every functioning member of society owes a debt to you.”
He asked the crowd: “Were you a perfect student? Of course not. You were a gross, walking petri dish with the attention span of a goldfish. But against all odds, an educator taught you.”
Williams and Ralph both thanked teachers for their work. Playing educators on TV, they said, has been an honor.
“I don’t need to tell you how strong you’ve got to be to lift your students spiritually, mentally, and physically on your shoulders,” Ralph said. “I don’t need to tell you how outstanding you must be to worry about other people’s children more than you worry about your own at times. I don’t need to tell you about the miracles that you have made happen in your classrooms under sometimes some very stressful situations.”
But educators need to take better care of themselves, too, Ralph said. (She has some personal experience with teaching beyond the show: Many of her family members are educators, including her father, who was the first Black male music teacher in Connecticut.)
“Even Superwoman needs to send her cape to the dry cleaner,” Ralph said. “Some of you need to take a moment to literally breathe. ... Too many of you are waiting to exhale. You need to take a vacation sometimes. Some of you need to take a break, and get out of the classroom.”
Teacher stress has risen over the past few years and job satisfaction has declined, survey results show. Nearly three-fourths of teachers are experiencing frequent job-related stress and 59 percent say they’re burned out, according to a recent national survey from the RAND Corporation.
“Remember that none of this really happens the way it should if you don’t feel good about you,” Ralph told teachers at the union conference.
“Be good to you,” she continued. “The better you are to yourself, the better you can be to everybody else.”
“Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson (who also stars in the show as 2nd grade teacher Janine Teagues) told Education Week in January that her inspiration for the show came from her mother, a longtime Philadelphia kindergarten teacher. She said she wanted to honor teachers while also finding the humor in their experiences.
“Schools really represent a moral compass for so many kids. ... These people are like second parents to them, and without good teachers who lead many children to healthier lives and give them someone to look up to, I think that a lot of kids would struggle,” Brunson told EdWeek. "[T]hat’s the significance of schools like Abbott, where you have teachers, like a Barbara and a Janine, even though she’s annoying to watch on screen. Teachers like Janine mean everything to kids. They change their worlds and change what they think the world can be and what life can be for them.”
The second season of “Abbott Elementary” will premiere Sept. 21.
The actors’ speech was a moment of levity before the delegates began their business, which takes place July 3-6 in Chicago. Delegates will debate measures on gun violence, the role of school police, and the union’s response to the wave of anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, among other topics of discussion. On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris will address the educators.