Teaching Profession

From Euphoric Moments to Workplace Dysfunction, Teachers See Themselves in ‘Abbott Elementary’

By Madeline Will — April 18, 2023 5 min read
Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, Quinta Brunson, and Tyler James Williams play teachers on the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Teachers say the show resonates with their experience.
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“Abbott Elementary,” the ABC sitcom about the work lives of the educators at an underfunded Philadelphia elementary school, has become a massive, award-winning hit. For teachers themselves, it has also been a dose of recognition and validation.

About 40 percent of educators have seen “Abbott Elementary,” according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center earlier this month. Among those who have seen it, most enjoy the show, with 12 percent saying they “love it.” And nearly three-fourths of the teachers and administrators who have seen the show said they thought it was a realistic portrayal of education and educators.

In a panel discussion at American Educational Research Association conference here last week, educators spoke about why the mockumentary is resonating among teachers—especially among millennials and teachers of color.

Educators said they could see themselves in characters like Janine Teagues, the optimistic and eager 2nd grade teacher; Gregory Eddie, the substitute-turned-full-time 1st grade teacher who’s trying to find his purpose; and Barbara Howard and Melissa Schemmenti, the veteran teachers on staff.

“As an educator—'Abbott Elementary,’ Janine—that was the first time I saw me [on TV],” said Génesis Aguilar Chávez, a former dual-language teacher who is now working for the Howard County, Md., Office of the Local Children’s Board, a government agency. “That hopefulness, and then also the frustration she shows when no one else has that same eagerness to solve these problems.

“And then also, as time went on, seeing myself in Mrs. Howard and Ms. Schemmenti,” she continued. “Oftentimes they’ll be like, ‘You need to chill out. You cannot do all of this by yourself. What is in your locus of control?’ That sounds like me, too, in the later part of being in the classroom.”

Quinta Brunson, the creator of the show who also stars as Janine, told Education Week last year that she wanted all of the writers on the show to have some personal experience with an educator. Her own mother was a teacher, and two of the writers were former teachers themselves.

That perspective has made the show’s depiction of an underfunded urban school feel true to their own experiences, the educators on the panel said. For example, Chávez pointed to a scene where one of the characters grabs the handle of the fridge in the teachers’ lounge, and it falls off. It was a small moment, but it resonated.

“I just felt seen—yes, that is really frustrating,” she said. “You only have five minutes before you gotta pick up your kids, and the handle fell off, and now what do you do?”

How the show portrays race

Loren Saxton Coleman, an assistant professor of communication, culture, and media studies at Howard University, a historically Black university in the District of Columbia, presented highlights from forthcoming research that analyzed the ninth episode of season one—"Step Class.” During the episode, Ava, the self-centered principal of Abbott, asks Janine to help her teach the after-school step class, but they don’t agree on how to run the program.

Both Ava and Janine are Black women, but they don’t fit into the stereotypical roles often given to Black female characters, such as mammies or matriarchs, Coleman said. They’re human, with both flaws and strengths. In fact, this episode is one of the first where viewers see a different, softer side to Ava.

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The episode also centers Black girlhood, Coleman said: “We see Black girls being free, being joyful, being happy in the school building and with one another and more importantly, with the leader.”

Too often, TV shows portray Black girls as older as they are, Coleman said, and that has real-world consequences. In schools, Black girls are subject to disproportionately severe discipline, research shows. One study found that adults see Black girls as less innocent, more independent, and less in need of nurturing and protection than their white peers.

Not so in “Abbott Elementary.” In one scene, Janine tells the girls to take a break while she talks to Ava, “shielding the young girls from any disagreement that they may have, which shows that these Black girls are worthy of care and concern and protection,” Coleman said.

Finally, Coleman said, the show depicts a strong community within the school, which includes Mr. Johnson, the eccentric but beloved janitor.

In the show, “the teachers’ lounge [serves] as a democratized space of power—the power hierarchy is challenged, with the principal, Mr. Johnson, [and] all the teachers participating,” she said.

Devin Evans, a high school English teacher in Chicago, said he appreciates the relationship between Mr. Johnson and Gregory, as the two Black men on the show—Mr. Johnson is often giving advice to Gregory. When Evans was first starting off as a teacher, he struck up a similar relationship with an older custodian.

“We see [janitors] as lower-class or not paid well, but they’re so integral in giving wisdom and advice to students and also people like me,” he said.

What the popularity of the show means for education

The educators on the panel said they’re hopeful that the popularity of the show will influence how people who don’t work in school buildings think about education. And in a world where prospective teachers are inundated with negative messages about the profession, it might also serve as a bright spot.

“I think this TV series is a great recruitment tool,” Evans said. “You show the realities of the profession, but also the euphoric moments that take place, too.”

He pointed to an episode where a young student was having trouble reading but had a breakthrough. “That’s why I’m in the profession—seeing those students get that light-bulb moments.”

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Still image from Abbott Elementary.
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Brunson told Education Week in her interview last year that she hopes viewers will be moved to support schools and teachers in any way they can. Educators are hoping for that, too.

Teaching “is very tough work,” Evans said. “This TV show is, yes, making it funny. I think you need humor. ... I like the fact that we can laugh with our issues. At the same time, I hope those that are watching can be able to get that push they need to really advocate for the school we want to see.”

“Obviously, the show is for us as educators—we enjoy it,” Chávez said. “But I think it also helps bring in all these other perspectives. I’m hoping policymakers are turning it on, trying to de-stress, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know what? Public education is pretty wild out there. Maybe we should do something about it.’ That is my hope.”

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