An American Educator’s Love Letter to Abbott Elementary
Abbott Elementary is the first show that has ever made me cry in its pilot episode. And for being a comedy, that is an even more difficult feat to accomplish.
In the pilot episode of Abbott Elementary, the show introduces Janine Teagues, a second year teacher at an underfunded school in Philadelphia. The episode follows her trying to secure money to buy a new rug for her classroom, a space where students sit for morning meetings and storytime. Without the rug, her classroom is thrown into chaos as the students lose a vital part of their routine. Additionally, Janine is shown the negative effects of losing the rug on one student in particular, a boy who uses it to nap on since he does not have a stable environment to sleep in at home. For him, the rug is softer than his bed at home.
It is during this reveal that Barbara Howard, a veteran kindergarten teacher played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, delivers the speech that brought me to tears. While looking in on the sleeping student, Barbara tells Janine that being a teacher is not a job with a singular role. Teachers must be educators, administrators, therapists, social workers, second parents, and sometimes even first parents. But there is a reason why we do it.
As a first year teacher who did my student teaching as well as my contracted teaching during the pandemic, nothing could have resonated with me more. I have never been so aware of how many hats I have had to wear. Sometimes, 45 minutes of my day will be spent out in the hallway trying to console a sobbing student, running back into my classroom to explain to a student why they absolutely cannot use a particular word in my classroom, answering ten questions about evaluating online sources that I had already gone over, heading back out to listen to the crying student again, then receiving an email asking me to explain why a student is failing a class they have never finished an assignment in.
All that to say, teaching is hard. But people already know that, right? That’s why teachers suddenly become a big deal again during an election year. Or why teachers being underpaid is a constant punchline or gotcha in people’s jokes and tweets, but nothing is ever actually done. Sure, people are aware that teaching is an underpaid, underappreciated profession, but that truth seems like one of those universal unavoidable things like death and taxes. Teachers will always be overlooked, but it sounds nice to say they shouldn’t, right?
People who are not as inclined to turn teachers into martyrs, instead prefer to give us advice no one asked for. Here’s a secret — no one knows what it’s actually like to be a teacher except for those who are in the classroom every day. But I’d love to hear how your mom’s best friend’s sister is a teacher and she actually agrees that we should throw out all books written after 1960 and Common Core standards have ruined the world. Teachers are either the root cause of all that’s evil in the world, indoctrinating children, or they are saints who do a job that no one else on earth could do. Yet, they’re rarely human. People who have actual lives outside of their profession.
Other sitcoms have attempted to show teachers as people. The first to come to mind being New Girl. (Try being a young, female teacher with bangs and not getting the Jess Day comparison). However, whenever Jess was shown in school during the course of New Girl, her fellow teachers were either bizarre caricatures or existed to be romantic interests for Jess. Her life at school only existed when it could be relevant to the plot, while Abbott Elementary understands how much of a teacher’s life happens at school and how much school can affect the life outside of it.
As a first year teacher, I truly do not think I would survive without the support of my co-workers, who know as much about my life inside of school as they do outside. Being a queer educator, there came a time where I had to come out to my co-workers, hoping that being in a more rural district wouldn’t mean a lack of acceptance. Watching the episode where Jacob tells Janine about his boyfriend reminded me exactly of when I finally came clean about my girlfriend to my own best friend at work, the first time we hung out outside of school.
Both her and I got into relationships over the course of the school year that ended in us getting dumped just a day apart from each other. We agreed, the only reason we could even get out of bed the next day was because we knew we would be able to have each other to lean on. We cried during our prep period, we spent every waking moment without students sitting next to each other and just listening to each other vent. My other friends found out slowly throughout the week about this devastating breakup, but it was my “work friend” who decided that we should now start texting each other “good morning” and “goodnight” because we lost the person that used to give us that daily comfort.
I understand where Janine was coming from in getting upset over her co-workers considering themselves “work friends” with each other rather than real friends, but when that work is teaching, the bond is so much greater. Something shown time and time again throughout Abbott Elementary’s run. It is not just Jacob and Janine bonding over being the newest teachers, nor is it the bond between Barbara and Melissa as the veteran teachers on the team that rings true. It is the way that while each teacher has their own role at school, there is no doubt that each of them will step up to do what is right not only for each other, but for their students. Abbott Elementary is not meant to make fun of teachers, it’s meant to show a place where teachers do not have to be either evil or perfect and fall somewhere in between.
As I began to recommend Abbott Elementary to many of my co-workers, I was met with resounding appreciation for the show right off the bat. Though I teach at the middle level — slightly older than the children who attend Abbott — I have not met a single teacher who could not relate to at least something within it. We’ve all had those students who act out because they’re just too bored at the level they are at and need a challenge to get them back to normal. We’ve all been frustrated over administrative decisions that are out of our control, though maybe not to the extent of Ava’s choices. And we have all depended on the guidance of our older co-workers to feel confident and assured in a position that never has a normal day-to-day routine, despite the way we must balance every plate in order to make it seem like everything is going smoothly.
I camp out in the classrooms of my teacher friends, begging for advice or gossip, or both. I celebrate in hushed tones when my favorite para quietly announces her engagement while my students work on their research projects. I buy coffee and receive coffee and receive treats from my co-workers because they knew I had a rough week because they are always listening. As I watch Janine, Barbara, Melissa, Gregory and Jacob interact, I am reminded of how the company of my fellow teachers turns what could be an extremely isolating job into something that feels like community every single day. As more and more educators exit the profession, the reminder without the sugar-coating that there is a reason we do this, and there is a reason to show up to school every morning is more than necessary.
Abbott Elementary doesn’t pretend to be a show about perfect teachers, nor does it fall into the shock-value, mean category that so many other workplace sitcoms do. It is not so close to my day-to-day that I feel like I need to look away to get a break from the eight hours I already spend at school, nor is it so devoid of truth that I feel too embarrassed to watch. Abbott Elementary may not be a show by teachers, but it is a show that gives teachers permission to live imperfectly. A feat not short of a miracle.