Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard in 'Abbott Elementary.'
ABC/Gilles Mingasson

Abbot Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph Reveals She Was A Teacher IRL (For Two Days)

“That was it for me.”

by Kaitlin Kimont

When you watch Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard on ABC’s beloved comedy Abbott Elementary, you might think that kindergarten class management she so expertly portrays on screen comes from real life work experience. But the actress, who won her first Emmy last September, has actually only worked in a classroom for a couple days. As a substitute teacher. With high schoolers.

Ralph comes from a big family of educators and decided to try out teaching right out of college for some quick cash. “When I graduated from Rutgers, I was 19 years old, and the quickest, fastest job you could get was being a substitute teacher,” she tells Romper. “And they paid you right away. You got paid that week. Oh my God, I loved it.”

Fresh out of college, all dressed up, and ready to teach, 19-year-old Ralph was excited for her first substitute teaching gig at New Brunswick High School in New Jersey. “I went into the classroom and I dressed up. I’m 19 years old and I’m going into this high school, those kids looked at me and they were like, ‘How old are you?’” she recalls. “And I was stupid and didn’t lie. I said, ‘I’m 19.’ They said, ‘Get out of here!’ And that’s exactly what I did. I left that classroom. That was it. I was in the classroom maybe two days and I was gone. That was it for me.”

An intimidating high school class might be where she went wrong. Like her character on Abbott Elementary, Ralph thinks she would have thrived with younger students. “I’d have been perfect in primary school,” she says.

Sheryl Lee Ralph portrays the very respected and old-school kindergarten teacher Mrs. Howard on Abbott Elementary. ABC/Gilles Mingasson

While her first taste of teaching was a bit rough, Ralph adores teachers and wants to help them get the resources they need. She’s partnered with MadeGood to help spread the word about the company’s Share Some Good Fund. The company will award a total of $200,000 to 1,000 teachers across the United States to buy school supplies needed for their classrooms and offset the out-of-pocket expense many teachers struggle to afford. From now until Sept. 24, you can nominate one teacher every week to receive $200 for classroom necessities.

“Why is it that we have to ask teachers to take money out of their salary?” Ralph says. “I’ve spoken to the teacher who’s making $25,000 a year, I’ve spoken to the teacher who’s making $30,000 a year. I’ve spoken to the teacher who’s had to leave the classroom because they could not afford to spend the money out of their paycheck to buy things like paper, scissors, highlighters.”

Not only do teachers need more financial support — the average public school teacher salary in 2023 is $56,937 — but Ralph also called attention to the importance of classroom diversity. “To this day, we need more and more teachers of color, Black teachers to come and enter into the classroom for all of the students, not just some.”

The Abbott Elementary actress partnered with MadeGood to help teachers get the schools supplies they need. MadeGood

Ralph is a mother of two — her son Etienne, 31, is a filmmaker and her daughter Ivy Coco, 28, is an entrepreneur and also works as her mom’s stylist — and her family is full educators. Her aunt, niece, brother, and sister-in-law have all worked in education. Ralph’s father also taught nearly every level of education, from elementary school to college, and she’ll always remember something that sat on his desk. “The greatest life lesson that I got from my dad was a little sign on his desk, and it was very simple. It said ‘THINK.’ It was a very simple little five letter word, but it has made all the difference in my life.”

As teachers head into the classroom this school year, Ralph wants them to remember their value, their impact, and to take care of themselves. “They have one of the most important jobs ever. Holding the hearts and minds of children daily with what it is they do and what it is they share with children,” Ralph says. “Please, take care of yourself, because you are important and we need you. We need you very much just the way you are.”

“I love teachers,” she adds. “The sacrifice, my God.”