Abbott Elementary's Quinta Brunson reminds Penn GSE graduates that educators have the “most important job in the world”

May 15, 2023
Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson stands at a podium flanked on either side by Penn GSE faculty while delivering remarks at the 2023 commencement ceremony.

Education is the most important field in the world, and educators today face more challenges than ever before.

That was the message actor Quinta Brunson delivered to one of the largest classes in Penn GSE history during the School’s 2023 commencement ceremony on Saturday morning. A Philadelphia native, Brunson is the award-winning creator, executive producer, co-writer, and star of the hit ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary. On the show she plays Janine, an optimistic, enthusiastic, and well-meaning if somewhat naïve early career 2nd-grade teacher who always goes the extra mile for her students.

“No matter what, keep your head up out there,” she told the more than 700 graduates and their families. “Because we need you. And even though it may not always feel like it, you’ve got the most important job in the world.”

“Yes, even more important than doctors,” she added, to laughs. “Sorry, doctors. What, you save lives, you think you're so cool? Well, someone had to teach you, so by the transitive property, teachers win!”

Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson stands at a podium sharing a laugh with Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman, seated to her right.
Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson, left, shares a laugh with Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman while delivering remarks at the 2023 commencement ceremony May 13 at the Palestra. Joe McFetridge for Penn GSE

In introducing Brunson, Dean Pam Grossman expressed her gratitude to Brunson for “shin[ing] a light on the amazing work that teachers do, without sugarcoating the many challenges they face.”

Grossman pointed out that while the show is fictional, “what Janine and [fellow new teacher] Gregory experience is very real. The first years of teaching are tough. But the rewards are enormous.”

“I want to be very clear here. It’s not Quinta Brunson’s job to solve these problems,” she said. “But by portraying teachers with so much honesty and love, Quinta is making their challenges real to millions of people in ways that no policymaker or education scholar ever could. And for that, we are all deeply indebted to her.”

Elaborating on the challenges teachers face, Grossman explained that “in this moment, when there are so many attacks on educators and on public education, teachers need all the attention and support that we can give them.”

“We should not be asking teachers to do superhuman work for less than adequate pay,” Grossman added to a roar of cheers and applause.

Grossman also acknowledged that this year’s ceremony was bittersweet for her since it was her last as dean. Thanking everyone she’s worked with at Penn GSE, she told how the leadership lessons she’s learned here have been rooted in her identity as a teacher. She compared meeting agendas to lesson plans and, humorously, faculty meetings to boisterous classes, a remark that drew laughter from the crowd.

She quickly turned back to celebrating teachers, though, before introducing Brunson, whose speech focused on the challenges her mother faced as a kindergarten teacher in West Philadelphia, as well as the impact her own teachers had on her. In one anecdote, Brunson told how her high school Spanish teacher Miguel Vazquez’s belief in her motivated her to attend college and do something great with her life.

“If you reach just one student, child or adult, it matters,” she said. “That person might grow up and make a hit TV show that changes how the world sees educators.”

Brunson didn’t shy away from the difficulties facing teachers today, however. She explained that teachers now must face challenges her mother, who retired in 2018, never did.

“While the world has always been difficult, I’m not sure I can recall a time where books were being banned and teachers, the hardest working and most underpaid of us all, were being attacked from so many different angles,” she said. But far from trying to discourage the graduates, she said she wanted to reassure them that she knew firsthand they could overcome such challenges and make a difference, and how vital it is that they do.

“And when it gets tough, remember: without you, there is no future, no progress, no anything,” she concluded. “Educators change the world.”

See more photos from this year's commencement ceremony here.

At top: Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson delivers remarks at the Penn GSE 2023 commencement ceremony May 13 at the Palestra. Joe McFetridge for Penn GSE