How ‘Abbott Elementary’ speaks to the bond between students and teachers: ‘You are making a difference’

Jimmy Kimmel, right, surprises Quinta Brunson with her former teacher Joyce Abbott, who appeared on a screen behind her.
Quinta Brunson, creator of “Abbott Elementary” is surprised by her sixth-grade teacher Joyce Abbott during a taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live! (Randy Holmes / ABC)

Olga Alvira-Velez, who taught in Philadelphia schools for more than three decades, has been retired for six years now. But when she steps outside of the house it never fails that someone will call her name.

“As soon as I hear a voice say Ms. Velez, I know that it’s a former student,” she said.

Alvira-Velez finds it gratifying to have made so many connections with students over the years and to see them grow up and be successful in life. 

For many teachers like Alvira-Velez it has been a joy to watch the new Philadelphia-based show “Abbott Elementary,” which was created by star and producer Quinta Brunson and named for her former sixth-grade teacher, Joyce Abbott. The lasting bond between the two and what it symbolizes – the ability of a teacher to help shape a student’s life – are the reasons many teachers say they stay in the profession.

“The purpose of a teacher is to try and get through to students. To try and connect and get across the academics. But in the process you transmit a lot of other things, hopefully the concept of hard work. The idea that you reap what you sow. Those are the kinds of things that I wanted to transmit to my students,” Alvira-Velez said.

Though Alvira-Velez can’t name any former students who made it to Hollywood, she’s proud to come across those who have become nurses, store managers and medical professionals, who link their success to the relationship with their former teacher, Ms.Velez.

“It makes me very happy when I see that,” she said.

Brunson, who is from Philadelphia but lives in Los Angeles now, was recently surprised by Abbott during a taping of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Brunson cried and dabbed at her face with tissues as her former teacher congratulated her on the show’s success.

Abbott, who teaches at Andrew Hamilton Elementary School in West Philadelphia, told Kimmel: “Quinta was an awesome student. When she came into my class, she was really shy, timid. But as I challenged all of my students, we had to speak in complete sentences. I built their confidence that whatever you want in life, you can do it. You have to work hard.”

“Abbott Elementary,” which is on ABC, portrays the lives of teachers at an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia. Brunson stars as second grade teacher Janine Teagues.

Brunson said she hadn’t seen Abbott since about the sixth grade, but at that moment on Kimmel’s show, it seemed clear that she played a vital role in Brunson’s life. 

The success of the show comes at a time when many teachers report being stressed by the effects of the pandemic on their job. According to a survey by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, one in four teachers in the U.S. considered leaving their job by the end of the last academic year. Black teachers were particularly likely to plan to leave the profession, the report said.

But one of the things that draws teachers and keeps them in the profession are the relationships and knowing that they are making a difference in the life of another person, said Vicki Baker, a math teacher at the High School for Girls near Broad Street and Olney Avenue.

“You don’t form close relationships with every student, but you interact in such a way that you know that you are making a difference. I think all of us want to make a difference and there’s evidence that you’ve made a difference,” she said. “I saw the clip [of Brunson and Abbott] and that she hadn’t seen this teacher, who had made such an impression. I run into students years after I taught them, it’s the same feeling. It just brings everything full circle.”

Kate Sannicks-Lerner, a kindergarten teacher at Julio DeBurgos Elementary School, who has taught for more than 40 years, said she’s been invited to weddings and even witnessed former students give birth. 

Alvira-Velez’s daughter Celena Velez, is a music teacher at Cayuga Elementary. The 14-year veteran views it as an honor when she interacts with former students with whom she connected.

“As a music teacher, I’ve started some kids out on instruments and then I play for like a festival here or there or something and I’ll share the stage with one of my former students and that is a joy like getting up to play and then seeing a kid who is a grown man on keyboard now,” Velez said.

Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development, said Abbott also taught his son at Hamilton. She was his favorite teacher. El-Mekki said he believes making a difference in someone else’s life is the main objective for teachers.

Angela Bandy, who considers El-Mekki to be her favorite teacher, said he was one of the few Black male teachers at John P. Turner Middle School. “He was from the community and the effort and pride that he put into being a teacher was phenomenal.”

El-Mekki received a note of appreciation from a former student, educator and poet An Payne, after seeing him in public, and said that he started writing poems in secret after hearing El-Mekki read “Black Boy,” a book by Richard Wright, in class.

The note read, in part: “I always mention you when I visit schools to read my books. You made such a great impact on a lot of kids in our urban community. So much that I still remember and talk about you. I still value a lot of the things that we learned from you.” 

El-Mekki said Brunson has used her platform to elevate the teaching profession. 

He said: “One of the things one of my teachers used to say is that students are known by their teachers and teachers are known by their students. And I think Quinta and Ms. Abbott are a perfect snapshot of that.” 

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