ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” is the love letter teachers deserve

Abbott Elementary is one of this year’s biggest breakout hits, scoring rave reviews from critics, massive ratings for ABC, and a legion of loyal fans.

The mockumentary-style sitcom follows a group of elementary school teachers in West Philadelphia trying their best to do their jobs. It’s a pitch-perfect workplace comedy that’s unfortunately rooted in an dismal landscape of educators.navigating—or bowing out of—underfunded and overcrowded public school systems.

A recent survey From the National Education Association found 55% of educators thinking about leaving their profession earlier than they planed, citing issues including burnout, pandemics, and low pay.

Black and Hispanic/Latino teachers were looking to exit in even greater numbers—62% and 59%, respectively—which is a significant problem given how underrepresented BIPOC teachers are already in the United States. According to the most recent data79% of public school teachers are white compared to 7% who are Black, 9% Hispanic, and 2% Asian American.

Show creator and star Quinta Brunson was inspired by her own mother’s experiences as a teacher to create Abbott Elementary and named the show after her sixth-grade teacher whom she has said made her feel seen as a child.

Abbott Elementary is a love letter to a profession that chronically never gets its flowers—and the love has been received.

Educators around the country have been faithfully watching Abbott Elementary since its premiere in December and have come to the general consensus that it’s a near-perfect representation of what teachers endure on a daily basis. At the very least, they’re able to laugh about it.

In the first episode, no one informed substitute teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) about the “reverse” toilet that shoots out water instead of flushing it. “I’ve worked in buildings that are over 100 years old,” says Anndra Wilson, a music teacher at James Dobson School in Philadelphia. “So when they have building problems on the show, they’re all very relatable.”

Abbott Elementaryepisode 104 [Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC]

Another episode featured Janine Teagues (Brunson) and principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) pleading on social media for school supplies. Once again, not a stretch. The campaign “Clear the List” routinely makes its rounds on social platforms with teachers posting what they need for their classrooms. Who could blame them? According to AdoptAClassroom.orgteachers spend an average of $750 out of pocket on supplies.

“Our principal buys us a box of copy paper at the beginning and the end of the year,” Wilson says. “But after that, we’re expected to buy our own copy paper, and we have just one copier for the entire school. That’s it. I’ve probably spent over $1,000 of my own money, but I’ve stopped keeping track because it’s depressing.”

In addition to touching on areas of underfunding and going well beyond their job descriptions, Abbott Elementary reflects on the effect that Black educators can have on students, especially in school systems, like West Philly, which have predominantly black students.

Tiffany Childress, a Chicago educator of 15 years, says that the city’s teacher-evaluation process included new testing protocols that have pushed plenty of teachers of color out of education. Since 2011the number of Black teachers in Chicago schools has been on the decline.

“Even when I was teaching on the West side, I was the only Black science teacher in the entire school,” she says.

Smaller still are the number of Black men who are teachers. “Having a Black male teacher is rare,” she says. “They’re like unicorns.”

Priscilla Dixon [Photo: courtesy of Priscilla Dixon]

The lack of Black teachers can also disrupt community building that is necessary for students’ development and growth. “Where I used to teach on the West side, your teachers were also your neighbors. So there was a different level of impact,” she says. “You became known as more of the family friend instead of just the teacher. With the loss of Black teachers, that kind of community gets broken up.”

Priscilla Dixon, a recently retired teacher in Chicago, expressed her own reasoning for leaving education, citing mostly the bureaucracy that keeps teachers burnt out and exhausted. “Sometimes you have a moment where you wake up and you’re thinking about going to work the next day, and your heart tightens up, and you just think, ‘I can’t do this anymore,'” Dixon says. “Teachers have had a lot to deal with, particularly with the pandemic that has just been so challenging, so I’m broadening my net.”

Although not addressed in the show, the pandemic has been a major catalyst for teachers quitting because of states dropping mask mandates and, what many believed, was a premature push to resume in-person classes. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10.6 million public school educators in January 2020—today, there are 10 million.

Sharahn Santana Green, a teacher at Parkway Northwest High School in Philadelphia, expressed her disappointment in public reactions to school closings during the pandemic. “A lot of people view us as glorified babysitters, like anyone can just do this job,” Green says. “We became the enemy really quickly because we wanted more protocols to protect ourselves and our students. Instead, people who have never taught in a classroom tried telling us how to do our jobs.”

There are clearly a number of factors in why teachers are calling it quits.

And Abbott Elementary is not only having an impact in terms of spotlighting these issues (and giving everyone, especially educators, a much needed laugh), but Brunson and ABC also have been working behind-the-scenes donating money and supplies to schools. ABC also has partnered with Scholastic to host free book fairs for students and teachers at Title 1 schools—the first collaboration of its kind with the publisher.

“We understand that our role—and I think Quinta also understands this as she does this show—is to listen to teachers,” says Billy DiMichele, SVP of creative development at Scholastic, “and provide them with the tools that they need to be successful in the classroom. We’re inspired by their resilience and their creativity as they tried to continue to create a sense of normalcy and safety and equity for their students in the classroom,” DiMichele says, adding, “So my hat is off to Quinta, the cast, and ABC. It’s one of the most meaningful shows of the season.”

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