Teaching Profession Opinion

‘Abbott Elementary’ Is the Exhale I Need Right Now

The 3 lessons I have learned from the popular sitcom
By Patrick Harris II — December 16, 2022 5 min read
Still image from Abbott Elementary.
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Cozying up on the couch to watch “Abbott Elementary” has been the professional development I did not know I needed. The teachers at the fictional—but oh-so-real—Abbott Elementary School created by writer and showrunner Quinta Brunson always give me a reason to reflect on my own strengths and pitfalls as an educator.

In part, that’s because “Abbott Elementary,” the sitcom now in its second hit season on ABC, steers clear of teacher tropes like the savior or the villain who hates kids. Instead, the show presents its characters as complicated human beings, and I see myself in them.

I’ve been in the classroom just eight years and I teach middle school, but in some ways, I’m like Barbara, the old-school, veteran kindergarten teacher who decides to prioritize her and her students’ self-care despite the school district’s demands to do otherwise. I see myself in the ever-optimistic Janine, the new teacher brimming with ideas. And as a Black male educator, I share a lot with Gregory, who also came into teaching through a nontraditional route and struggles to determine his purpose. These characters, individually and as a cast, are a protest against teacher stereotypes. That’s revolutionary for our profession.

More good news is that the show is racking up honors, having recently won three Emmys (outstanding casting, outstanding writing, and best supporting actress for a comedy series), plus four additional nominations.

Meanwhile, the show has been teaching me. Here are my top three lessons, presented spoiler-free, from the first half of this season.

Lesson 1: Appreciate What Your School Can Do

When a new charter school opens up near Abbott, the Abbott crew decides to check it out. As they walk through the halls, they note fresh coats of paint and the abundance of technology. Back at Abbott, they hear students talk enviously about the monthly field trips the charter school students take.

To even things up, Janine tries to get new laptops for the school, but the plan isn’t approved. Will her school ever be able to compete? Then, the self-serving principal, Ava, rents an ice cream truck for the entire school. As students from the charter school walk by, wishing they could have ice cream, Abbott students rave about how much they love their school.

After working in six schools in eight years, I have learned that funding, founders, and location shape the cultures and experiences of schools in ways that make each different. Comparing schools for the purpose of pointing out inequity is important. But comparing schools so that their strengths disappear is a big mistake.

Ask: What parts of your school work? What parts bring you and your students joy? Who are the people in your school you should be celebrating?

Lesson 2: Hold the central office accountable

When the first-floor restrooms at Abbott go out of order, teachers try every option before calling on the district to declare an emergency. They take 1st graders up a flight of stairs to a different restroom. They prevail on their colleague Barbara to allow them to use her kindergartners’ restroom. Not only do both restrooms fail, Barbara winds up unhappy with Janine, who went ahead and used the restroom after Barbara said no.

The episode is a clear reflection of how system errors fall into the laps of teachers. In my second year of teaching, we did not have the supplies needed to implement the district-mandated curriculum or when we were locked out of the curriculum websites, the only option was to send the district an email, and someone would respond within 24 to 48 hours. It was a prescription for frustration and overwork.

While educators can’t stop mishaps in schools, we can hold the central office accountable while minimizing the chaos. Central offices need to hear from teachers—through liaisons, social media, a district forum, or any other channel that’s open. Often, administrators don’t understand the impact of their processes on the people who have to use them.

Further, we can minimize the chaos by calling on our colleagues. When emergencies happen, knowing and believing in the skills of people in the building comes in very handy.

Lesson 3: What happens outside of school impacts what’s going on inside of school

In season 2, “Abbott Elementary” takes us outside the school walls to learn more about the main characters. For example, we get a peek into the dating worlds of Greg and Janine, who are going through romantic breakups. Teacher Melissa Schemmenti, the well-connected Philadelphia native juggling two grades in one, finds that she cannot avoid the strained relationship with her sister (who happens to be a principal at the rival charter school). Such personal challenges have repercussions in the life of the school.

Now, I believe good teachers are the ones who understand they are imperfect.

I realized how much of my personal life seeped into my professional life only when I started therapy during my fourth year of teaching. As a student, I knew my teachers just in their professional role. That’s the way I thought it should be when I became a teacher. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I could leave out all the difficult parts of living in a world as Black and queer, as a first-generation college student, as someone who has experienced trauma, I’d be the perfect teacher for my students. Now, I believe good teachers are the ones who understand they are imperfect, just like the characters on “Abbott.”

The more that teachers can be in conversation with themselves or people they trust about their own lives, the better teachers they will be. Whether it is seeing a therapist, developing a self-care routine, or journaling on the day, we owe it to ourselves first to reflect on our own upbringings and the ways our current lives impact our work.

“Abbott Elementary” continues to be a bright spot in my teaching journey. Not only is it an exhale in my day, but it also challenges me as a professional. The show is helping me see the good in my current school. I’m evaluating the systems that I teach in and how I can hold them accountable while working alongside my colleagues and my students. And most of all, it is helping to affirm the humanity in myself and my colleagues. This is the power of purposeful media. “Abbott Elementary” is what teachers need right now.

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