Cheyney University recently welcomed back Cheyney alum, Joyce Abbott, the inspiration behind the Emmy Award-winning TV show, Abbott Elementary. Abbott Elementary is the creation of Quinta Brunson, who was a student of Abbott in sixth grade.
Abbott appeared for a special live table talk event with the university’s coordinator of assessment and continuous improvement, Dr. Carolyn Hall.
Hall asked Abbott to speak at length about the importance of education and her perspective on public education as it relates to perseverance and overcoming obstacles. She also remarked on the importance of HBCU’s like Cheyney University, which was established 185 years ago.
The live event opened with remarks from university president Aaron Walton who proudly exclaimed Abbott is Cheyney made. “I have no doubt about her ability to share her knowledge with Quinta because we all have to have a role model,” Walton said. “And that shows you the ‘power of one.’ We never know the impact we’re having when we work with folks. We can have a tremendous impact on people by just being a part of their lives.”
Abbott has an impressive list of credentials, accolades, and experiences that lend credence to her successful approach to education. She served in the United States Army for 10 years, which included a 10-month tour in The Persian Gulf War. She earned the rank of staff sergeant. Abbott has a Bachelor of Science in business and economics from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a Master of Education from Cheyney University. In 2004, 2005, and 2007 she was listed in the Who’s Who Among America’s Finest Teachers. She will retire from the Philadelphia School District at the end of the year.
When asked to expound on the perseverance it takes to be an educator, Abbott said it is essential that in any occupation, particularly in education because every day is not easy.
“When your sole purpose is the students that you serve, you cannot please everyone. Your vision is toward the students you’re entrusted to. My journey was many sleepless nights, staying up late working and going in very early,” she said. “Enduring different attitudes and conflicts with adults, I had to keep my eye on the students I served. It’s not easy. I’m not going to tell you I didn’t have tears, that it was rough. But I would get up and say ‘I’m gonna do it. I did things with our student’s people said our students could not do. When I was in the classroom, people would say ‘they can’t speak in complete sentences – they can’t write.’ Don’t say what they can never do.’ They can and they will. That’s perseverance.”
Relating to President Walton’s vision for Cheyney’s future, Hall said the world on the surface has changed a lot since Cheyney was founded, but there are a lot of things that have not: lack of equity in education, lack of diversity in economic conditions. Aspects of racism in the culture that still exist in a more covert fashion. Hall remarked that when it came to her students, she understood she was one of their only hopes.
“I had to know at the end of the day that I helped them to succeed,” she said. “A lot of them come from homes, and environments where college or even trade school or high school isn’t a goal. When I got into their stories, I saw they were in homes with no heat, no electricity, infested with rodents. Some of my students acted out and there had to be a reason why. When I could see everything they had going against them it would bring me to tears. I had to ensure the students were successful, even if they weren’t going to college but going to a top high school. Having the ability to speak in complete sentences, to have respect for each other and for adults. You have to understand the population that you serve.”
Abbott said much of the strength and ability to overcome obstacles she brought to teaching came from having served a decade in the Army. She served her deployment in the Persian Gulf and had a three-year-old daughter back home.
“That separation was extremely difficult for me, but as a leader I couldn’t show that. I had soldiers under me. I had to stay strong.”
Abbott’s most poignant remarks came forth when she stated without hesitation that in today’s society, elementary and high schools don’t prepare students for higher education. “We have to look at our schools that are not preparing our children,” she said. “People who can’t read, people who can’t write. We need people in the schools who really care. College is the last door of opportunity for many of our people. Education is something no one can take away from you.”
Watch the full livestream below or on YouTube!