Why the star of ‘Abbott Elementary’ surprised this Philadelphia teacher

Teacher gasps for air as she is surprised for her work inspiring students at Comegys School in Southwest Philadelphia.
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

The hit show “Abbott Elementary” highlights Philadelphia teachers’ commitment to their students’ success despite the chronic underfunding of local schools. Although the mockumentary-style show is a comedy, many of its scenes reflect reality for Philadelphia teachers who work long hours and buy school supplies for their students.

Xiomarra Robinson, for one, dedicates each day to making sure her third graders at Benjamin B. Comegys School in Southwest Philadelphia have what they need to thrive. Robinson is known for opening her classroom during lunch breaks so students can share the challenges they may face at home. “It’s really about letting my students be themselves and allowing them the space to be themselves,” she said.

Robinson’s dedication — she purchases additional school supplies and teaches extra classes, such as art — recently caught the attention of “Good Morning America.” Anchors T.J. Holmes and Robin Roberts, and the creator and star of “Abbott Elementary,” Quinta Brunson, surprised Robinson in person. The school received $20,000 in Scholastic books, $40,000 from Wells Fargo, and a new mural from Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Comegys Principal Rauchaun Dupree, who was in on the surprise, said she’s in awe of the work Robinson does for her students. And she’s proud of “the things that we do every single day just to ensure that our students get the education that they deserve every single day.”

Robinson said her Comegys colleagues went to great lengths to keep the visit a secret. “They did good,” she said. “I’m going to get some later because they did not tell me anything — deleting stuff off my phone. They definitely surprised me and made me feel loved.”

Robinson, a native of Paterson, N.J., spoke recently with Chalkbeat about the importance of providing support for young people to grow and learn.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you get started in teaching?

At first, I wanted to be a guidance counselor. And at the time, they had the requirement that you had to teach for three years. And so I got in with the hope that I would eventually become a guidance counselor and actually ended up falling in love with teaching. And I came down to Philly, first as a literacy coach, and missed being in the classroom, and Miss Dupree snagged me. I haven’t left since.

There’s a bond between the teachers on “Abbott Elementary.” How important is it for teachers to support each other?

Even if you’re flustered or frustrated, everyone is there for everybody. So that community feel of teachers who have taught in other schools makes a difference. It’s all about the kids. Despite anything that happened the day before, they come in, as if nothing has happened with a smile on their face and ready to start.

We keep holding on and making sure that we are servicing our students and making sure that we’re giving them the best that we possibly can, that we are also pouring into each other and checking in and just giving ourselves a lot of self-care. And so that’s what we’re going to do as we continue to make sure that our students get the best education that we possibly can give them.

Why do you buy school supplies with your own money?

Because I don’t want something as silly as ‘we didn’t have the resources’ to be a barrier for them not to be able to participate. And if that means if I can’t find someone to help, if I have to do it myself, then I’ll just do it myself. Because I want them to have that ultimate experience, because that ultimate experience can change a decision of what they can possibly do or [help them] find something that they love.

What do you say to people thinking about becoming a teacher?

Do it. We need you. Especially our teachers of color. Especially our Black teachers of color, because our young boys need them so much. Even if you feel like you’re not the best speaker or don’t know everything — it’s okay. Just showing up shows that you care. You’d be surprised what a difference you can make in their lives. So do it, even if you’re going to do it for five years [and then] do something else. It’s okay because those five years in five classrooms is like 100 kids that you can touch.

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