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Op-ed

Ms. Abbott (of ‘Abbott Elementary’) has something to say | GUEST COMMENTARY

Joyce Abbott, a retired climate manager at Andrew Hamilton Elementary, is the teacher who inspired Quinta Brunson's " Abbott Elementary." (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Teachers see some wild behavior in their classrooms. I hear about it all the time — students getting into fights, cursing and smart-mouthing authority figures.

Recently, I got to chat with Joyce Abbott, the Philadelphia teacher who is the namesake for the ABC hit TV show “Abbott Elementary,” which was written and produced by Philly’s own Quinta Brunson, who also stars in it. Abbott was Brunson’s sixth-grade teacher.

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The mockumentary-style comedy series is about life in Philly’s public schools but often ends on a heartwarming note. The reality, of course, is often different. In Philadelphia, the teacher shortage has reached dire proportions; at the beginning of the school year, hundreds of positions were unfilled.

Until recently, Abbott worked as a climate manager in charge of mediating conflicts and keeping West Philadelphia’s Andrew Hamilton Elementary safe and orderly. She’s retired now, and — with the benefit of nearly three decades in the classroom behind her — has a lot to say about the challenges facing both teachers and students.

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During a nearly hourlong interview last month, Abbott talked to me about how vital it is that teachers have a sense of what students are facing at home, the importance of establishing a consistent plan to address disciplinary issues, and how the larger erosion of civility has changed the relationship between teachers and pupils.

“The level of respect for adults (from students) is like truly out of the door,” Abbott, 62, said when we spoke. This is why so many teachers are leaving the profession, she noted. “The kids will curse you out.”

“When teachers say, ‘I’m going to call your mom,’ they say, ‘Call her. Do you want to use my phone?’” she recalled. “I’ve seen them take out their phone and give it to the teacher.”

Abbott tried really hard not to do that. By passing off discipline to parents, “you’re slowly losing your power,” she said.

Instead, Abbott often would sit with misbehaving students during their lunch periods and talk to them one-on-one about their behavior.

“I said, ‘I care too much about you to suspend you and send you home. You have to learn,’” she told me. “I poured in (to them) and I gave up a lot of time.”

Abbott also took the extra step of getting to know her students’ backgrounds.

“During virtual learning, I had no fear of going out into the neighborhoods and to these homes. A lot of teachers are — and you can’t blame them, with the crime — they’re scared of the communities that they’re teaching in,” she recalled. “If you’re not understanding the background, (you’re) not understanding that these kids have heard gunshots all night. They may not have had anything to eat ... I’ve had kids say, ‘There was a party all night at my house.’”

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The culture of the city has shifted somewhat. “We are in different times right now. You can see these kids out in the streets all times of the night.”

As she spoke, I thought of all the times that the misdeeds of school-age kids have ended up on the pages of this newspaper, and wondered how things might have been different had they been exposed to someone with the commitment and caring that Abbott exudes.

I was luckier than most. I grew up surrounded by teachers. Both of my parents were lifelong educators, and most of their friends were as well. When I hear Abbott speak, she reminds me of conversations they used to have. I feel for kids who don’t get to have a special instructor in their lives who cares about them and insists on excellence.

“We have to be grateful as a community and as a city” for Abbott, Sharif El-Mekki, a former teacher and the founder of the Center for Black Educator Development, told me. She has poured so much of herself into our city’s children, “including my own, including folks like Quinta, and including folks who we will never know their name.”

Folks need to remember Abbott and what she represents— beyond being the namesake of a hit show, El-Mekki added. “She’s a shining example of what being a really great educator means to communities.”

These days, Abbott is taking advantage of the popularity of “Abbott Elementary” — which in September snagged three Emmy Awards — to step into the spotlight and share her wisdom.

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I asked her what advice she would have for teachers.

“Be consistent with your rules,” Abbott said — you can’t, for instance, say kids can’t wear hoodies then ease up on the rule as the year progresses. Also, “Set high expectations and never waver.” That’s what worked for her.

Jenice Armstrong (@JeniceArmstrong) is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where this column first appeared, and Daily News.


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