Growing up on TV sets for most of his education, Tyler James Williams got through high school with the help of two studio teachers who delivered instruction in 20-minute blocks throughout the day.
“They were tasked with the job of getting the lead of a show through high school in a maximum of three hours of schooling a day. Somehow, they pulled it off and made it fun,” says the “Abbott Elementary” actor, who won the 2023 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, Comedy or Drama for his role as Gregory Eddie.
“They have a tough job. They have to make sure you get a quality education and make sure you don’t feel overworked or stressed at the same time.”
His takeaway from the experience is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to education.
“It’s a very unique experience for each educator with each child,” says the actor and musician. “You have to relate differently to each individual.”
Inspired by Philadelphia teacher Joyce Abbott, who now serves as climate manager for Andrew Hamilton School, “Abbott Elementary” paints a very different picture of education than the one Williams grew up with. In preparing to work on a show that doesn’t shy away from the realities of teaching in an underfunded public school — from poorly maintained buildings to a lack of basic supplies — one of the biggest things he learned is that delivering information is just a small part of what teachers do.
“You’re a social worker. You’re the kids’ first line of defense. You’re a bathroom monitor. You’re doing all these things outside of education,” he says.
Pushing through burnout
Although he doesn’t blame any teacher for feeling burned out under such conditions, Williams hopes educators will give themselves grace — particularly in the moments when they feel like they’re failing.
“What teachers are tasked with doing is almost impossible, so if you get any version of it done, it’s a success,” he says. “I’m so proud of those who step up every day in the midst of burnout and choose to continue to do it. Literally the world does not move forward if somebody doesn’t step up and do this job.”
He urges teachers to seek support in any way they can — and to support each other.
“I hope and pray that teachers everywhere have a great support system they’re surrounding themselves with. One thing ‘Abbott’ shows well is how teachers support one another and lean on each other.”
Finding humor in the situation can also help.
“I hope our tiny show can make people laugh and help ease some of that burnout,” he adds.
Overcoming inequity through empowerment
While “Abbott Elementary” finds humor in the real-life struggles urban teachers face, the mockumentary sitcom also underscores the serious inequities that continue to plague education.
The disparity of educational resources impacts everything from class sizes to teacher retention to building conditions, ultimately putting low-income students at a significant academic disadvantage. These disparities disproportionately affect minority students, as illustrated by a 2019 study that found predominantly white districts receive $23 billion more in funding than their non-white counterparts serving a similar number of students.
When he takes the stage at ISTELive 23, Williams wants to let teachers know that although they may not be able to fix everything for their students, they have the opportunity to do something even more important: empower them.
“One of the things educators get the opportunity to do is empower the students whose lives they’re affecting, not only with information but just by standing beside them,” he says. “I think the thing that people need most when they’re trying to address inequity is just support — someone to stand beside them and say, ‘I see you. I hear you. You can speak up and use your voice.’ ”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.