Let’s do away with euphemisms — Abbott Elementary is not a story about an “urban or inner city school.” Created by comedian Quinta Brunson, the new series is a comedy that smartly uses humor to provide a necessary commentary on America’s school system, highlighting what happens in city schools when the majority of the schools’ population is African-American and Latinx, and how the only solution our cities have to improve these schools is to burn out its brightest and smartest young teachers.
Abbott Elementary’s heroine, Janine Teaugues (played by Brunson), reminds you of a torch in a dark cave that is constantly being sprayed with cold water. She only seems momentarily dimmed by the challenges she faces as an elementary school teacher in Philadelphia. Having completed her first year as a second grade teacher (most teachers don’t last more than two years at Abbott), Janine’s optimism hasn’t been extinguished. She actively smiles her way through the most ridiculous circumstances, and tries to rally her fellow teachers and administrators to change a system that is obviously designed to frustrate education and promote failure.
This is brilliantly captured in the show’s first episode when Janine asks for a rug for her classroom. Any teacher that teaches primary grades understands how important rugs are for young learners (you probably have a memory of the rug your kindergarten or first grade teacher had in their classroom). Unfortunately, Janine is told by her principal, Ava Coleman (played with hilariously deranged energy by Janelle James), that there is no money for rugs — all while the Eagles stadium can be seen receiving a multi-million dollar renovation from Janine’s classroom window.
It’s easy to root for Janine because she is a hard working and earnest underdog who wants to see her students win. She will do electrical work, get “fell off the back of a truck” hook ups, and even try to make a viral social media video to get the supplies her kids need.
In contrast, Barbara Howard (played by the talented Sheryl Lee Ralph) is a veteran teacher who has found her foothold in the dysfunction, creating a consistent, structured, and loving environment for her students while not asking for (or expecting) any meaningful support. There’s an interaction between Barbara and Ava in the first episode where the principal tries to use the teacher’s non-complaining demeanor as a compliment against other teachers requesting supplies.
“Barb… never complains. What’s your secret Barb?” Ava asks, at which point Barbara, not missing a beat, looks at her and replies, “I know that there’s not much you can do, Ava.”
It’s a brief exchange that says so much, Howard so used to the dysfunction (and her principal’s frequent complicity in it) that she knows to just try and make do with what she has. The foil of the cynical Barbara and optimistic Janine not only provides some great comedic bits (like Janine calling Barbara “mom” during their first interaction with each other) but offers a relatable representation of what it’s like to be a teacher as both a newcomer and a veteran.
I see myself in Janine. I was also a young teacher convinced that, if I worked hard enough, I could overcome all the obstacles put in front of my students — and I did. No lab equipment? I spent my paycheck and got supplies for my under equipped science “lab.” No books? I created and assembled text, projects, and experiments from various sources on the internet on my own time at home. Sometimes, I would be planning and preparing late into the night and be in front of my students with only a few hours of sleep (to get me through the day — which also often included after school programs, too — I regularly drank energy drinks). It took almost a decade of teaching this way before I realized that not only was I burning myself out but I was neglecting my family, and all the things I tried to build for my students (as much as they had fun and loved learning in my class) needed constant maintenance by me because no one else cared.
I look at Janine’s character and I know where she’s headed. I know that it’s already her second year and her smile is starting to fade. I know that she spent the summer thinking about all the things she could have done better and she was convinced she’d make the changes she wants this new school year. I know she’s spent that summer putting together binders of lesson plans and spending the little money she has on resources for her classroom (to the point that she can’t even afford donut holes, as she confesses in one of the episodes).
She is convinced that if she works hard enough she can improve the school she works in when, in reality, it’s much more complicated than that, finding a balance between caring so much for her students while also taking care of herself. As Melissa Schemmenti (played with charm and grit by Lisa Ann Walter), a veteran teacher like Barbara, tells Janine when she asks the fellow second grade teacher how she can care without caring too much: “It’s the opposite. We care so much we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s here for the kids?”
Although it’s obvious that Abbott Elementary is a descendant of workplace mockumentaries like The Office and Parks and Recreation (I can’t say I don’t laugh every time the characters acknowledge the film crew or just deadpan the camera), the series is a refreshing change in direction for television sitcoms about educators and, if the early episodes are any indicator, will only get better. The series doesn’t place the blame on the students, teachers, or even the parents. It makes it clear that the problem is much bigger — a society that is failing education, especially Black and Latinx neighborhoods — avoiding (and at times critiquing) the tropes that exist in both real life and TV depictions (the wisecracking white teacher who comes to the hood to save poor children, for example) to create something that’s just as funny as it is real.
Aurelius Raines II writes, lives, and teaches in Chicago with his wife, Pam, and his two sons. He likes to write about things that aren’t happening, in hopes that they will…or won’t.
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