Joyce Abbott remembers every one of her students — the ones who struggled and the ones who soared.
She wasn’t surprised that Quinta Brunson, one of her sixth graders at Andrew Hamilton Elementary in West Philadelphia, became successful. But Abbott did a double take when her daughter heard on social media that Brunson, a comedian and writer, had a new TV show debuting.
“She said, ‘Mom, Quinta’s creating this show Abbott Elementary. I know it has something to do with you, I just know,’” said Abbott.
That would be Abbott Elementary, the hit ABC show written, produced, and starring Brunson, inspired by Brunson’s own teacher mom. It’s about a fictional, underfunded Philadelphia public school that’s a lot like Hamilton, where Abbott still works — the needs are great and the budget is slim, but the staff cares and the kids are a joy.
And yes, the name is no coincidence. Brunson chose “Willard Abbott Elementary” as a nod to West Philly icon Will Smith and to her favorite teacher, whose life has gotten a lot busier since the show first aired and learned that Brunson wanted to reconnect with her.
Abbott, who taught Brunson in 2000-01 and last saw her at eighth-grade graduation in 2003, soon got the call.
“We talked that night for close to an hour,” said Abbott. “We were both crying.”
Brunson was a strong student at Hamilton, but a shy one. She volunteered for everything and she was so determined that she wept if she earned a B.
“She was an awesome student,” Abbott said. “Sometimes she was too hard on herself — she was so driven for excellence.”
Though they talked and texted regularly, they haven’t met up in person — yet. But they had a virtual meetup on Jimmy Kimmel Live on Tuesday, with Abbott in Philadelphia surprising her former student in Los Angeles. Brunson wiped tears from her eyes when she saw Abbott on the screen.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m so proud of you,” Abbott told Brunson. Kimmel later surprised Abbott, who has plans to retire soon, with a five-day vacation. (Abbott and Brunson plan to meet in person the next time Brunson is in Philadelphia, Abbott said.)
Former students have been flooding Abbott’s inbox. When Abbott was getting her COVID-19 booster shot and her daughter mentioned that Abbott Elementary was named for her mother, someone asked Abbott to take a picture with her.
It’s been overwhelming but lovely. And she’s still trying to wrap her mind around inspiring a pupil who went on to write and star in a TV show about Philadelphia schools that she named for her.
“It means a lot,” Abbott said. “It’s not that I do the work to be recognized — I’ve never done the work to be recognized. The kids know, the students know, and that’s all that matters.”
Instead, the reward is her students’ pride in their own hard work, their realization that they can do difficult things, their coming back to visit, telling her about the goals they accomplished after her classroom.
To get there, Abbott has never shied away from hard work herself. (”I give 150 to 200%,” she estimates.) Teaching isn’t a 9-to-3 job, no matter what time the bells ring. She made sacrifices to get there, dipped into her own pocket for supplies or groceries for a child’s family, sat with students in hospitals, and answered her own front door to see students on her porch. It’s exhausting sometimes.
But “when you believe in them, you put in the work,” said Abbott. “It’s more than a job. You have to give these kids a chance if they want to make it out of neighborhoods. The only way is for them to be educated.”
Abbott herself grew up in West Philadelphia and graduated from public schools — Overbrook for high school.
She earned a business degree and joined the Army, serving in Desert Storm, then became a teacher through a program that helped veterans earn education degrees. She spent a year at Shaw Middle School, then went to Hamilton, where she’s worked for 25 years. After a long career mostly as a sixth-grade teacher, Abbott became Hamilton’s dean of students and then climate manager, responsible for keeping the school safe and orderly. She mediates conflict, presides over admission and dismissal, and meets with parents.
Abbott hasn’t missed an episode of Abbott Elementary, and she said she’d love the show even if she had no association with it.
The show has resonated with so many Philadelphia educators not because of the inside jokes about “jawn” and South Philadelphia mobsters, but because it reflects the lengths to which teachers go for their students. When Brunson’s Janine Teagues made an impassioned speech about all of her students being gifted, Abbott nodded.
All of her kids deserve the best, Abbott firmly believes. That’s why she pushed them so hard: Speak in complete sentences. “A’s” are not easy to get. You are not “below basic,” the lowest designation on standardized tests, so don’t act that way.
“You should be able to come through these doors and get the quality of a private education if not better,” said Abbott.
That was what she strove for in her classroom: strong education and positive life experiences. When Brunson was a sixth grader, students held pretzel sales and assembled hoagies to earn enough money for a stretch limo ride and gourmet dinner at the swanky Chart House at the end of the school year. Abbott coached them on what a salad fork looked like and how to talk to and tip the limo driver with class funds set aside for that purpose.
Abbott rejected suggestions that they aim a little lower, take a school bus to the Olive Garden or TGI Friday’s.
“When you work hard, you get the best,” Abbott said. “When you see the best, you’re going to strive.”
And while Brunson’s acclaim is a feather in Abbott’s cap as a teacher, that doesn’t dim the accomplishments of the young lady who went on to be a hair stylist or the young man who came to sixth grade struggling to read, who spent Abbott’s prep periods in her room going over basic readers one-on-one with her. He’s now in the Air Force.
“Some of them, it was a struggle just to make it out of high school,” said Abbott, “but they made it, and I am equally proud of them.”