Abbott Elementary Finally Shows the Real-Life Joy, Frustration, and Fun of Being a Teacher

TV Features Abbott Elementary
Abbott Elementary Finally Shows the Real-Life Joy, Frustration, and Fun of Being a Teacher

Teachers have always had it tough.

Long before COVID-19 brought national awareness to the struggles of distance learning, which only served to magnify the difficulties faced by teachers every day pre-pandemic, educators were already engaged in a trying battle.

Increased violence in schools, high stakes testing, a continuing rise in mental health issues among students, school budget constraints and the public’s general lack of understanding in what a teacher actually does has led to many educators feeling undervalued and under-supported. While it’s sadly ironic that it took a pandemic to see teacher appreciation on the upswing, the profession has remained an enigma in a medium you’d have thought would serve it well: television.

For decades it’s been easy to find an intriguing drama or hilarious comedy about police officers, doctors, firefighters, and lawyers. It’s even easier to find a successful TV series about big box store employees (Superstore), physicists (The Big Bang Theory), and people who sell paper (The Office) than it is about teachers.

So when the press release for Abbott Elementary initially hit my inbox, I dismissed it. Despite having almost 20 years experience as a public school teacher, I’ve rarely come across a series that accurately portrays the profession. According to Hollywood, teachers can’t take attendance without losing their temper (Mr. Garvey, Key and Peele), become drug kingpins (Walter White, Breaking Bad), are lovelorn, alcoholic chain-smokers (Edna Krabappel, The Simpsons) or much (Riverdale), much (How To Get Away With Murder) worse. A new TV show about teachers? Puh-lease.

There hasn’t been a quality TV series about educators since Welcome Back, Kotter, a show that premiered in 1975. Considering almost 50 years of educational ineptitude have passed, there was no way Abbott Elementary could break this trend, right? Wrong. Right from the jump, it grabs you with its authenticity and humor.

Filmed in a mockumentary style, ABC’s Abbott Elementary follows a mix of new and veteran elementary school teachers in Philadelphia who are determined to help their students succeed at an underfunded and poorly managed school. While this doesn’t sound like fertile material for comedy, the series’ creator, writer, and star Quinta Brunson has managed to crack a code no one else has. She’s made a profession that many have only a basic understanding of relatable and funny. It’s a humorous look at what it’s really like to be a teacher—and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Abbott Elementary is the first new comedy to have quadrupled its ratings since its December debut. The show has become an internet sensation and is lauded by critics. Paste’s own Amy Amatangelo even called it, “the best new network show of the season.” The series is also getting noticed by professional educators. This includes many I know, so I asked them what they believe rang true as they watched the first season:

“I especially liked the interaction between younger and veteran teachers and how, although they might have different approaches and views, they share a common goal and love for the kids.” —Toni Maliniemi, special education teacher.

“The older teacher speaks a lot of truths about education. She knows the system well enough to give her students everything she has.” —Nicole Sundermeyer, kindergarten teacher.

“Teachers are always buying supplies for both students and themselves. I have personally purchased backpacks and any supplies that were needed for my students. I know that all of my colleagues that I am privileged to work with have done the same.” —Diana Botz, math interventionist.

“I was a substitute teacher for four years and my mom taught for 20+ years. The thing that hit closest to home for me was the tone-deaf principal. But the old-school Black teacher and the street-smart white teacher rang true as well.” —O’Dell Isaac, former sub turned journalist.

“I believe this sitcom is the best thing to depict the struggles of an elementary school teacher at a public school. Although there are some parts that stretch the truth a bit, or are used to make the sitcom more entertaining, I believe it does ring true on most things.” —Ilka Andino, third grade teacher.

“I want to know how they have all this time to grade, have lesson plans ready, and talk to their coworkers for so long.” —Taylor Valachovic, third grade teacher.

To be fair, Abbott Elementary does take some liberties. Speaking from experience, I can tell you with certainty that teachers don’t hang around for long periods of time in the lounge, they have to deal with a TON of paperwork, and they rarely leave school for lunch let alone depart to get their nails done like kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) does in Episode 2.

And if we want to nitpick, if a real principal ever acted like Ava Coleman (Janelle James), she’d be fired in a heartbeat. Although Abbott’s resident Tik Tok expert is great with a one-liner, completely inappropriate, and therefore my favorite character on the show, she’d be a nightmare as a principal. She’s this generation’s Michael Scott, which is likely no coincidence. Brunson has acknowledged in several interviews that Abbott Elementary’s humor and style are influenced by The Office, but what’s made the show so fun is how grounded it is in the realities of teaching but with an entertaining twist.

Teachers will always have to deal with not having enough supplies (Episode 3, “Wishlist”), new technology or special programs that are here one minute and gone the next (Episode 4, “New Tech”), and burnout because they always put their students before themselves (Episode 2, “Light Bulb”). Teaching can be frustrating, exhausting and thankless but Abbott Elementary also deftly demonstrates that the profession is full of joy when you succeed, that laughter comes from both co-workers and students (I once had a third grader ask me for “destruction” paper instead of construction paper), and that dedicated teachers have huge hearts.

“Janine, teachers at a school like Abbott, we have to be able to do it all,” says Barbara Howard to disheartened first grade teacher Janine Teagues (Brunson) after she fails at getting something for a student she desperately needs. “We are admin, we are social workers, we are therapists, we are second parents. Hell, sometimes we’re even first. Do you want to know my secret? Do everything you can for your kids. We’ll help.”

That sounds like every great teacher I’ve ever known, which is why Abbott Elementary earns A’s all around.

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesday nights on ABC and is available on Hulu the following day.

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model. When he’s not teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

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