I’ll be the first to admit I approached watching the mockumentary sitcom “Abbott Elementary” with a degree of skepticism. I saw nothing comical about broadcasting the all-too-common challenges faced by an underserved, underresourced, and underperforming elementary school as humorous—especially one with Black teachers and leaders. However, I’ve come to recognize the significant role this comedy has in reminding us of Black teachers’ profound impact on all students, specifically Black children. As the season nears its end, I think it’s worth reflecting on its impact.
Aside from its comedic angle, show creator and main star Quinta Brunson’s framework for the show is grounded in a heartfelt experience with her own Black elementary teacher, Joyce Abbott. It was Joyce Abbott’s unwavering belief and high expectations in Quinta and her peers that led to Brunson’s success as a student, and she extends this show as a “thank you.”
For years, researchers like Travis Bristol, Zaretta Hammond, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Pedro Noguera, and Vanessa Siddle-Walker have codified the narratives and pedagogy of Black teachers like Joyce Abbott, who have tremendously impacted the lives of so many students. Studies have since added to the research base, pointing to the keen impact Black teachers have on academic outcomes for all students. For example, a 2018 working paper using Tennessee STAR class-size experiment data found that Black students are more likely to graduate and attend college when they are randomly assigned a Black teacher. A 2016 North Carolina study found that Black elementary students, particularly boys, are significantly less likely to be suspended from school when they have a Black teacher.
In the early 1990s, Ladson-Billings provided a framework for understanding the practices and pedagogical moves of culturally relevant teachers—most often Black teachers. Culturally relevant teachers lead with a set of innate, deliberate actions to uphold the dignity of students and their peers. Culturally responsive teachers often get results, have high expectations, help students see their ethnic identity in a positive light, are strong advocates, and organically build relationships.
However, the public has seen few examples of the practices and pedagogy that make way for the strong academic results generated by Black teachers. “Abbott Elementary” provides clear examples of how Black teachers leverage culturally relevant practices and pedagogy daily to impact the lives of their students—both socially and academically.
Set in Philadelphia, the show focuses on teachers who love working at their underresourced and underperforming school. Characters Barbara Howard, Janine Teagues, and Gregory Eddie highlight the unique role Black teachers play every day to improve student learning.
Veteran teacher Barbara Howard recognizes the need to have high expectations for all her students and protect them. Her expectations are grounded in preparing students for whatever challenges life yields while also saving them from being exploited as a mission project, which happens far too often. Barbara pushes back on Janine’s efforts to publicly sensationalize the challenges Barbara’s students face to encourage the community to donate resources to her classroom wish list. She is committed to ensuring her students do not feel “less than,” because of what they do not have, but instead work with what they do have. In addition to—or perhaps because of—her focus on high expectations and creating pride in her children, Barbara’s students get academic results.
Janine Teagues is a second-year teacher who is aggressively committed to ensuring her students have all the resources they need to succeed, even if that means taking on the school administration. She takes every opportunity to advocate for her students and the school community. In one episode, she uses her personal social media accounts to push her friends and followers to invest in her school. In another scene, she disagrees with the way the principal is spending school funds and emails district leadership to seek change.
Gregory Eddie, a Black male substitute teacher, organically fosters strong relationships. While he does not initially recognize his impact, he later uses it to help students see their work as meaningful by decorating the classroom with their drawings. As Gregory allows his relationships with his students to grow, his role as a leader and advocate emerges and, despite the struggles, he decides to remain a teacher.
While “Abbott Elementary” is a fictional comedy, it provides a very real reminder that Black teachers do more than teach—they change lives. While there are many Joyce Abbotts in schools today, there are still too few.
As education leaders and policymakers look for ways to improve student outcomes and close opportunity and achievement gaps, one solution may already be in classrooms. Black teachers can serve as role models for the profession and should be empowered and rewarded for the way they show up for students and their communities. We need more teachers like Barbara, Janine, and Gregory.