Teachers are trying their best to play multiple roles in the lives of their students at an underfunded public school with limited support from the higher-ups. Sound familiar?
That’s the premise of ABC’s new workplace comedy “Abbott Elementary.” Created by Quinta Brunson, who also stars in the show as 2nd grade teacher Janine Teagues, the show follows a group of teachers and their principal at a Philadelphia public school as they navigate challenges in and out of the classroom with laughs and heart.
Brunson spoke with Education Week about how the show captures the nuances of the teaching profession, the significance of Black teachers and predominantly Black schools like Abbott, and the hope that the show can garner more support for real teachers across the country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why create a show about teachers and why specifically now?
I’ve been watching my mom for years be a teacher. I’ve been in her class. I went to the school she taught at. So I’ve been with her in the mornings and at night. It was just a world I knew very well. And I was like, oh, I could write this world. I know this world. And I think you can make a great workplace comedy.
The why now of it is interesting because the idea for this show was developed about three years ago. [That] is when I originally put it together, developed it, and pitched it to someone. The pandemic took a year off of the Hollywood-making things schedule.
But it just happened to come out at this time when teachers are such a talking point, in so many ways. Schools are at the center, unfortunately, of COVID debates, at the center of gun violence debates, at the center of educational debates, like critical race theory and all that stuff. It just happened to come at this time. Three years ago, no one was talking about teachers as much as they are now, not in this way. And now, everywhere we look, we’re talking about education, which is unique. I hope that it leads us into a better place in this country with our treatment of education, specifically public education.
How do you come up with the storylines? Are educators involved in the research or writing process?
When I hired writers, I did want to make sure that everyone had at least some experience with an educator outside of the room.
One of our writers does work with LAUSD, the Los Angeles public school district. I wanted everyone to have a healthy relationship to education. Two of our writers were teachers themselves and had since stopped teaching and became writers. And my experience was just so healthy with having my mom as a direct resource, as well as friends who are educators right now in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. So we all just had many educators in our lives.
I think it really helped inform a lot of our storytelling. We always wanted to try to approach our stories different from the very broad perspective of teaching, which is that your teacher stands up there in front of the board and tells you stuff, and then you go home, and they go home, and they go to sleep and then they come back the next day and just do that again. There’s so much more life involved in who teachers are just like anybody else.
There’s so much happening when teachers aren’t standing there teaching. That was one thing I learned from my mom’s experience. Being with her in the mornings and then after school, she didn’t stop working until like 8 sometimes. And whether that was lesson plans or learning some new program that the school had come up with or development days, or one time my mom just decided to teach an after-school dance class, which we kind of have an episode that’s a nod to that. So sometimes it was by choice, just her wanting to do something for the kids. And we sought to show all of that in the show.
At a time when teachers of color, especially Black teachers, remain underrepresented in K-12 education, can you talk about the significance of having a majority Black cast?
In my world of this show, naturally, the majority of the cast is Black, because that’s just kind of true to a school in West Philadelphia, where the majority of my teachers were Black teachers. And I kind of didn’t even realize that wasn’t the norm when I was a kid. I wasn’t thinking about what the norm was for other people. But that was my normal. And that’s the normal for many kids in a school like Abbott in Philadelphia.
The significance is, I think, here is something that is so normal for so many people, but kind of pushed to the side. In America, the default is whiteness all the time. And that’s not actually a lot of people’s experience. The majority of my teachers were Black teachers. So it almost wasn’t a choice for me. It didn’t feel like I was making a significant choice. It felt like I was mirroring the world of West Philadelphia.
Now that it’s out, now I’m seeing the significance. One character who I did know was significant was Gregory, who is the Black male teacher. And I did know that statistically, I think, only 2 percent of teachers are Black men. So I did know that including that character was unique. But he’s kind of based on a friend of mine from back home who’s a teacher. And he knows the significance he brings to a school, being a Black male teacher and Black male role model. And just watching other people interact with the characters in the show now that it’s out and seeing the importance they see. And teachers seeing teachers who look like them, and teachers who interact with students like them and interact with each other like them. Now I know that these were significant choices.
What do you think most plagues majority Black public schools? What do you think is most beautiful about majority Black schools?
Schools really represent a moral compass for so many kids. Schools, their teachers, the staff. We talked about it on the show. These people are like second parents to them, and without good teachers who lead many children to healthier lives and give them someone to look up to, I think that a lot of kids would struggle.
Sometimes kids come from rough home lives and school is the only place they get to come, where they’re guaranteed meals and they’re guaranteed some type of positive adult supervision. And I think that’s so necessary.
For instance in Philadelphia, I just do a lot of research and work with gun violence prevention programs there. I think when schools went remote, which they had to do because of COVID, I felt like that was tough for a lot of kids, not being able to go to a school, their place of community, not only the teachers but other kids. And so to me, that’s the significance of schools like Abbott, where you have teachers, like a Barbara and a Janine, even though she’s annoying to watch on screen. Teachers like Janine mean everything to kids.
They change their worlds and change what they think the world can be and what life can be for them. So in places like Philly and areas like West Philly, those teachers are really needed, and those schools are needed. It’s a home away from home. You spend almost eight hours a day there.
It’s a positive environment, it really changes your life. I talked to friends who went to the same schools as me and had the same teachers. We give so much credit to our teachers for how our lives turned out, just as much as our parents, and I think that’s the significance.
What do I think these schools need the most? I think I kind of made it clear in the first episode. I think all the funding that goes to everything else should equally go to our schools. I just don’t understand why it doesn’t. The fact that teachers need anything, the fact that wish lists exist? I get it. It’s cute. But I’m just like teachers should never want for anything. It’s a public service. Who are we without teachers? Who are we without the people who teach us how to read?
The simplicity of it bothers me. I know it’s more complicated than that, once you start talking to people, once you go to the meetings and stuff, but it shouldn’t be this hard. Teachers need. Give it to them.
What do you hope educators, and more broadly the general viewing audience, take away from the show?
My intentions weren’t to do anything but make people laugh. That’s my job as a person creating a comedy. I do know that we have heart in our show. And I know that we do show some very real things going on in the school district.
I'm just like, teachers should never want for anything. It's a public service. Who are we without teachers?
I want people to be moved to support schools and teachers in any way they can, whether that be to donate to a wish list, because that’s what people need right now. And I’ve already seen movement on that. People have told me ‘I went and looked up a teacher’s wish list immediately after the episode.’ That little kind of traction means a lot to me.
Also, you know, there’s stuff that we’re going to show later in the season that I hope moves people to get a little bit more politically involved with what’s going on. This is as much a citizen’s job as it is a teacher’s job. Teachers are just trying to do their job. They do so much already. Teachers are already fighting for change within the schools, but they’re also teaching so I think that citizens could offer a little bit more help.
You went to a school. Your kids are going to go to a school. We should look into how to support teachers a little bit more. I’ve seen people be like ‘I don’t know, I love Abbott and it cracks me up, but I feel like should we be highlighting schools that have issues like this and should we be laughing at this?’ And I’m like, well, this is a real life thing. If you feel that moved about it, take yourself to a public meeting, take yourself to City Hall, make some demands, offer teachers a listening ear, offer teachers some support.
There’s so many things you can do to make sure that this show doesn’t exist anymore.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘Who Are We Without Teachers?’