A Public High School Teacher Falls for the Familiar Fictions of “Abbott Elementary”

·6 min read
Photo credit: ABC/Temma Hankin
Photo credit: ABC/Temma Hankin

When I meet new people and introduce myself as a high school ELA teacher, I typically receive one of two responses. Either:

Wow, must be nice. Weekends and summers off? These new kids are out of school every other day, it seems like. I’m in the wrong profession!

Or:

Whew! Better you than me. Kids these days have no discipline. It’s all these young parents. Just disrespectful. I could never have that type of patience. You couldn’t pay me enough.

In truth, there are parts of each viewpoint that resonate for me. Let’s say that teenagers have a lot of personality, and having an abundance of patience is nonnegotiable in the classroom setting. I do love having summers off and am exhausted enough to run out of the building on Fridays at 3:20; still, does it count as a weekend if I spend the entirety of it grading 170+ assignments? None of these statements capture the best or worst parts of my profession. Teenagers are a handful, but I love how much they teach me about compassion, critical thinking, and relationship building. Teachers are grossly underpaid, but my Detroit youth deserve an educator who is from the city and is dedicated to them. When someone does not work in the field of education, it can be difficult to explain the nuance of feeling like teaching is both the most important and most exhausting work I have ever done.

When I first entered the field in 2011, I planned to go the distance: 30 years as a classroom educator. At this rate, I will be lucky if I make it to year 15. This third year of Covid has brought so many unanticipated shifts and is threatening to topple a system that was already fragile. According to the NEA, more than 55 percent of teachers are considering leaving the field earlier than previously anticipated. Moreover, a substantial portion of these educators are Black or people of color; 62 percent of Black and 59 percent of Hispanic/Latino preparing to exit the field in the near future. Approximately 7 percent of teachers are leaving the profession this year alone. In 2020, there were approximately 10.6 million teachers working in the field; as of 2022, there are approximately 10 million teachers. The nationwide fix has been to encourage “self-care,” as though this is an individual crisis, not a systemic one. Nevertheless, I have to acknowledge that it has been community, laughs, and art across mediums that have grounded me in the midst of everything.

Enter Abbott Elementary, a television sitcom created by Quinta Brunson. According to ABC, this mockumentary follows “a group of dedicated, passionate teachers—and a slightly tone-deaf principal—[as they] find themselves thrown together in a Philadelphia public school where, despite the odds stacked against them, they are determined to help their students succeed in life. Though these incredible public servants may be outnumbered and underfunded, they love what they do—even if they don’t love the school district’s less-than-stellar attitude toward educating children.”

It’s important to note that I am notoriously bad at TV and binge-watching, so I don't normally watch the popular shows until years after they have ended. I missed Game of Thrones. LoveCraft Country. Stranger Things. Whatever your favorite is, I likely have not seen it. But the buzz swirling behind Abbott Elementary was hard to ignore. Before I saw a trailer, I had friends tagging me on Twitter, encouraging me to watch the hilarious new show about Black teachers. People who know that I teach send me snippets on a weekly basis, and I kept promising I would get to it. I intended to, but by the time I get home and settled, all I want to do is sleep.

Also? If I can be really honest? Part of me was late to the show because I was afraid that watching an episode would be like replaying my day. Was this a space where my life as a Black teacher in an urban school would be the brunt of a joke that seemingly the whole world was laughing at? After watching an episode, would I feel entertained, or embarrassed? I approached the first episode with apprehension. Then I came to the second with skepticism—could this episode really be as interesting as the previous one? Before I knew it, all my spare moments were spent watching and rewatching the entire series.

Instead of being a point of stress, Abbott Elementary quickly became a space of refuge. Each time Gregory glances at the camera, deadpan expression, I am transported to the moment when the Black teachers connect in a staff meeting and our expressions have a conversation only we can decode. I am endeared by Janine’s zealousness and can remember when I was that first-year teacher, trying to save the world and likely annoying my coworkers while doing so. I currently imagine myself to be a Lisa who will (hopefully) have the grace and endurance to become a Barbara.

In addition to its humor, Abbott Elementary is remarkably realistic. Haven’t we all had an argument with a partner and had to come to work pretending to be focused on the tasks of the day? Or tried our hardest to keep our colleagues out of our business, only to have a work friendship sneak through the cracks? The office crush? The negligent boss? And while these characters are relatable, they are not flat. As much as Ava slacks, getting a glimpse into her family life made me empathize with her, and also made me reconsider my perception of coworkers, family members, and other associates.

What I’m most impressed by is Brunson’s ability to portray a completely accurate (and hilarious) view of the day-to-day classroom while also refraining from a voyeuristic lens that focuses on the worst parts of education. Under a less imaginative lens, the mockumentary could have focused on its gaze on overdone, anti-Black tropes. Thankfully, the episodes don’t rely on poor inner-city youth, school violence, negligent teaching, racism, Covid, or other potentially triggering circumstances to draw an audience.

When the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, occured in May of this year, Brunson revealed that she’s been asked countless times to include a “school shooter” episode. I am grateful that she did not succumb to that pressure. In the days following that shooting, people who could have been mourning or been in community with their loved ones were instead arguing about arming educators. A guy in my morning workout class says it’s the “only solution,” and I haven't been back since. The last thing I would have needed would be to relive that grief and fear in my favorite sitcom. Teachers will not save us. And art may not, either—to be honest. But it has given me back something that is hard to come by: a space to relax, laugh, and engage in the pleasure of entertainment without fear.

Brittany Rogers is a poet, a mother, an educator, and a native Detroiter. She has work published or forthcoming in Mississippi Review, The Metro Times, The Offing, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, and Oprah Daily. Her work has been anthologized in The BreakBeat Poets: Black Girl Magic and Best of the Net. Rogers is a fellow of VONA, The Watering Hole, Poetry Incubator, and Pink Door Writing Retreat. She is editor in chief for Muzzle Magazine and cohost of the VS podcast. Learn more about Rogers at brittanyrogers.org.

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