Abbott Elementary Finally Does Right by America’s Most Wrongly Portrayed Profession
When it comes to screen portrayals, few professionals get as a raw deal as teachers. In most American movies and TV shows, it’s a world of saints and losers. (Europe does better.) The list of impossibly noble teachers is long: Boy Meets World’s George Feeny, Friday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor, Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. And the list of bunglers and monsters might be longer: Mrs. Tingle, the eponymous Bad Teacher, Matthew Broderick in Election, Ross on Friends, all the teachers on Glee, every teacher on every CW show ever.
That’s partly why the arrival of ABC’s Abbott Elementary, which concludes its first season on Tuesday, feels like such a brand-new horizon. Set in a public elementary school in Philadelphia where the funding is low and the teachers are either neighborhood fixtures or overwhelmed rookies, the show thrives on character. Creator and star Quinta Brunson’s Janine is the quintessential second-year teacher who’s convinced that she’s already got the school wired. Regally talented veteran kindergarten teacher Ms. Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) exhales an earned skepticism about institutional change. History teacher Jacob Hill’s (Chris Perfetti) cable-knit whiteness—“he looks like he dreams in podcasts!” a student says—is clueless about how to get along in a majority-Black school. Tyler James Williams’s Gregory begins as a substitute, but soon sees how much his students flourish with a young Black male teacher. He decides to stay. Second grade teacher Ms. Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) is a tapestry of Philly Sicilian grit and social attunement, but also works the bleeding edge of low-grade criminality like an associate of Angelo Bruno. Janelle James’s scene-stealing principal Ava may be the realest: the history of narcissistic administrators who parachute into their role with minimal classroom experience is long.
Abbott is not only the best network sitcom in ages, but also feels like the most refreshing, especially for people who have suffered through so many dumber depictions of faculty life. Here is a show about teaching that weaves actual pedagogy into the script, like the immaculate use of “jawn” and other gems from the Philly lexicon as “sight words” (or words that young kids memorize instead of breaking down with phonics) in the pilot. Here is a show that reflects the life of a Title 1 public school with neither the cudgel of an “urban decay” narrative nor an end-of-The Breakfast Club fist pump. Brunson resists the way some white filmmakers worship a white lady who condescends to teach poor Black and brown kids (think Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds) and, even within the necessary conventions of a sitcom, finds a lot more truth.
My unreserved love for Abbott Elementary comes from a personal place too.
Critically, the genre work is also note-perfect. Abbott is an example of the post-Office mockumentary that leans into its own cadences, its own set of fresh character types, its own cache of references. When she hears how exactly the principal scams her way into local nightclubs, Brunson’s Janine exclaims, “You don’t even look like Jill Scott!” The principal’s deadpan reply: “To white people in South Philly I do!”
As with many others’, my unreserved love for Abbott Elementary comes from a personal place too. I taught at a Catholic high school in South Florida. There were no idealists, almost no other teachers my age, and little beyond a flinty, shrewd mentor and prescribed book lists from the Diocese. I try not to romanticize it. I tried to help as many students as I could to write and argue better, and to think about knowledge and power through some Elizabeth Bishop poems I snuck into my syllabus.
Abbott has given me a chance to look back. On my very first day, a student approached me with a deeply unflattering picture of Tobey Maguire on his iPhone. “This is you. Are you as big of a nerd? You look like it,” he said. By noon, dozens of students were making web-shooter motions to me in the halls. Months later, senior faculty insisted I dress up like Spider-Man for the pep rally. I obliged. Years later, I felt great sympathy when Jacob’s students affectionately roast him for the entire fifth episode on Abbott.
And as in the series’ fourth episode, when a new progress-tracking app makes the younger teachers suddenly useful to the tech-averse veterans, I also remembered when a 30-year teacher who spent the bulk of her career at an all-girls Catholic school in the South Bronx enlisted me to help her find out which boy was downloading a container ship’s worth of porn from the school Wi-Fi. I have not recovered from the investigation.
Before Abbott, the best, truest depictions I’d seen of the profession tended to come from Europe. I especially return to France’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class (2008), seen through the perspective of a young teacher, a movie that honestly reflects reality: The school has a globally diverse student population and the film gives us a glimpse of how each of their specific home lives manifests at school. There are no heroes. No student catapults to an elite university. The movie’s ending resonates like little else I’ve seen: The young teacher remains unsure of his work and student moods range from confused, to betrayed, to grateful, to indifferent.
The nuances in European stories about teaching speak to the facts on the ground. Teacher training in much of Europe is rigorous and prestigious, more akin to medical school than the largely mediocre programs offered to American teachers. Teacher pay in Europe is higher than in America. Universal health care and better school funding means teachers don’t go broke if they get sick and don’t have to subject themselves to literal half-time shows where they scrounge for supplies.
I mention this because I wonder if that’s at least partly why teaching often flummoxes entertainment executives and upper-middle-class audiences in the U.S. If teachers are “smart,” why are they making so little money? Ask a professional who makes six figures with no inherited wealth: Would they want their child to go into teaching? Teaching pokes a pair of American wounds: never really being able to talk about social class and an inborn suspicion of intellectual people who don’t want to maximize potential earnings. Even the positive coverage of Abbott Elementary sometimes falls face first into rhapsodizing about the “hearts” of teachers, as if the job depended solely on vibes.
Abbott succeeds because it treats a misunderstood community fairly. It’s a show made by someone who knows teachers for an audience curious about the absurdities and graces of the profession. The craft of teaching—the sight words, the specter of state tests, the ways to entertain as you educate—and how teachers actually perform that work are at the very center of the show. Yes, teachers are different. But not because they are anointed as better human beings. The good ones are remarkable because they do the work that other people can only imagine.
A ghostwriting opportunity came my way a few years ago. I would have helped write the life story of a Wall Street doyen turned commissioner of a large metropolitan school district, at his behest. After a few tense conversations about how much he loved a middle school teacher of his, and how he felt U.S. teachers were worse now, he snapped: “You know these people could never work at a place like Goldman or Alphabet!”
You’re right, I thought. Not in the way you think, but you’re right.