Art Imitates Life for Lisa Ann Walter of ‘Abbott Elementary’

By Zerline Hughes Spruill, Interview by Kisha DeSandies Lester
Abbott Elementary

Lisa Ann Walter is not a teacher, but she plays one on TV—Ms. Melissa Schemmenti—and she’s got it all: Pride for her students (the second and third graders that she teaches simultaneously), a guy who can take care of any problem (don’t ask any questions) and a commitment to not burn out because … the kids.

Ms. Schemmenti is one of the dynamic characters on the award- winning ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Walter, the TV and screen actress who portrays her, told Our Children that she aligns perfectly with the South Philly-Sicilian character’s persona, and holistic pedagogy for all students. And playing this role has developed an even greater respect for teachers, she said.

Lisa Anne Walter

“What I would love for teachers to know is there are people all over this country [that] see teachers; we acknowledge and respect and honor them,” said Walter. “The profession that they have chosen to enter into, as my character says in the pilot, it’s a calling and it’s worthy and they are beloved.”

For those who have not yet invited the endearing and relatable “Abbott Elementary” cast into homes, the series highlights a diverse group of teachers who give their all at a Philadelphia public school despite budget shortfalls, overcrowding classrooms, and of course, their personal lives.

In addition to becoming a favorite in both teacher and parent households, the series and its cast—Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams and Quinta Brunson, the show’s creator—have received critical acclaim and won several Golden Globes, Emmys, AFI, SAG, NAACP Image and Independent Spirit awards.

“Abbott Elementary” is based on the creator’s real-life 6th grade experience as student in 25-year veteran Joyce Abbott’s class—a Philadelphia teacher who retired in 2022, one year after the series was piloted. The family-friendly sitcom has also received the strongest comedy ratings on ABC since “Modern Family.” “Walter, comedian, producer and actress known for her role as housekeeper and nanny Chessy from 1988’s “The Parent Trap,” is a big part of that success.

“I’m so proud of the response from this show from fans in general, but especially from teachers,” Walter said. “Being in a show like ‘Abbott’ where we hear some wonderful things from teachers who tweeted us, one of the best things we can hear is ‘I feel seen,’‘You understand what we’re going through.’ I think we see so often in TV and movies that teachers are a one note idea. Teachers are whole humans. There are failures and wins, and [that] we get to show all of that is a blessing.”

When Art Imitates Life

“My most important role is as the mom of four children (that I know of ),” Walter joked. “One of my kids is a therapist for kids on the spectrum and is currently in a Ph.D. program on the east coast. I’m the daughter of a public school teacher. I watched my mom and saw what she went through growing up, trying to wrangle funds in an underfunded school system in downtown DC.”

While “Abbott Elementary” is a comedy, it finds a way to finesse serious issues around teacher shortages, the school-to-prison pipeline, race disparities and lack of funding and resources. Walter, who, like her character, is of Sicilian decent, says as a mother she understands the challenges from all sides. Her diverse lens as a parent of twins, daughter of a teacher and parent of a teacher, has given her an even deeper understanding of her role, and more importantly why the education community resonates with her series.

“Abbott’s” episodes have delved into the debate around public, private and charter schools, introducing new technology into classrooms, the challenges in holding leadership accountable and teachers—like her character—having to teach two grades in one classroom.

“It helps if you don’t get mad with people. If parents start getting confrontational with the people that are there supposedly to help their kids, it never works well,” she said. “There have been a few things where you know what’s happening and don’t want to be an overly intrusive parent.”

One of the series’ regular themes highlights Williams, the former child actor who played the leading role in “Everybody Hates Chris.” His Golden Globe winning role is Mr. Eddie, a reluctant teacher who started at Abbott as a substitute, despite setting his sights on being principal. As the only Black man teacher on the show—a harsh reality schools face throughout the U.S.—Mr. Eddie realizes the students and teachers need him as a teacher, even though he went to school for a leadership position in education.

“The storyline is so smart, given where we are in the world today,” said Walter. “A teacher shortage, a substitute shortage, and the fact that he is a Black man choosing to do this as a profession knowing that it’s not going to necessarily pay what other jobs pay, and it is not necessarily what he was hoping for in terms of a long- term career. I bet you we see him grow and grow and grow even more in what he’s doing and what his goals are. It also inspires people, and that’s super important.”

While the show relies on comic relief to touch on real-life issues, it’s important for viewers to consider the truth behind the fiction. As a result of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling which legally ended school-based segregation in 1954, many schools and districts shut down. This meant that school staffs at the segregated Black schools—Black educators and principals—were fired and, in turn, offered janitorial positions at the schools that were newly integrated, according to Sharif El-Mekki, former U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow in a Notes from the Backpack podcast episode.

While studies show only 20% of the teacher workforce identifies as a person of color, with considerable underrepresentation of Black men, it has been proven that Black students who have Black teachers are more likely to have access to rigorous courses, higher test scores, better attendance and a stronger sense of belongingness, according El-Mekki.

An Advocate for Education

Abbott Elementary” also delves into the school budget issue. The show’s script has included teachers dipping into their own pockets for materials, leading fundraising campaigns and crafting creative alternatives when resources are short.

Playing the fictional street-smart teacher, Walter is reminded of her own childhood, having been raised by a physicist father who passed away in 2000, and teacher mother who first taught in Pennsylvania at a one-room schoolhouse with an outhouse. Walter was proud to be able to share the pilot script of “Abbott Elementary” to her mother, shortly before she passed away in 2021, before the premiere of the show.

“Like all teachers, she used her own personality. She was from Brooklyn. We are a Sicilian family. She didn’t have to bolster herself or change who she was to be that teacher,” said Walter of her mother. “Did they have the most money in the world? No. But it was better in those days. She started teaching in the ‘60s. There was more of an understanding, I think, that you would just get the textbooks, you would get the science equipment. You would get the kids what they needed. Now, in the more recent years, has become the bigger fight for just getting even the basics.”

Being raised by a teacher, Walter says her mother was the “queen of trivia,” and they would watch the game show “Jeopardy” together. As a teacher and mother, she was a great storyteller and would use her imagination to explain stories and school subjects. She was also serious about learning. When her mother gave 3-year-old Walter the choice to take a nap or read, she chose the latter every time, zipping through “Dick and Jane” books with ease. By the time she was enrolled in school, her school teacher immediately put Walter to work. And this wasn’t just any teacher. Raised in the Washington, DC area, Walter said she was taught by Montgomery County’s (Md.) Teacher of the Year, Dr. Freddye Davy, who passed away in 2012.

“She was unbelievable. [She] recognized me running my mouth, being excited by an idea,” recalled Walter. “Instead of sit there and be bored, she sent me to the upper grades to help read and teach classes.”

A Love Letter to Teachers, Parents and PTAs

Whether wearing her parent or actress hat, Walter recognizes from her own experiences that educators are the key to creating changemakers. She also realizes the importance of acknowledging the humanity of teachers, and their thirst for respect.

During Teacher Appreciation Week 2022, Walter moderated “A Teacher’s Perspective,” a virtual town hall hosted by National PTA and National Education Association which featured U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel A. Cardona. In her opening remarks, Walter said that students often forget teachers are human and “Abbott Elementary” helps humanize educators and offers insight on what teachers go through.

“I think we see so often in television and movies that teachers are a one-note idea, that they’re overbearing and mean … teachers are full humans. That there are failures and wins, and that we get to show all of that, is really a blessing,” said Walter.

She added a love note to educators. “Respect and appreciation is what I wish for you. What I wish for you is this: Better. Better pay. Better budgets and funding, and that those who make the decisions about what it is that you deserve just do better.”

Walter has seen the education system become more challenging over the years—for teachers, parents and students, alike. Walter experienced her children’s classes grow from 20 to 40 students, and learned to accept the hard reality of having active-shooter drills on school campuses. When she had to troubleshoot her own children’s issues at school, she learned that storming a classroom in anger and assumptions is not the way. Meeting teachers and parents where they are, while considering their personal lives, is an important aspect of building community, she said. Walter’s advice: volunteer at school on event days.

“Be in a place where you hear everybody. When people feel heard, it goes a long way,” said Walter. “It’s about the kids and it’s about what’s best for them, especially in a PTA room where you have to start with a basic level of respect. Maybe it comes down to the leader starting it by saying, ‘Listen, we are going to have different ideas, different points of view, we are not always going to agree. But let’s agree that what we are doing is for the kids and let’s be respectful to each other,’” she added. “If we listen to each other, that’s who we are going to raise. Let’s be that model.”

“Abbott Elementary” airs on ABC Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EDT and is streaming on HULU.

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