When was the last time you cried at the end of a school year?
I’ve done it about five times as a teacher, each moment with its own context. The first time was because I finished my first school year. I poured everything into that set of kids, despite some of the nonsense I put up with from peers to do so. The second time was because that first set of kids was graduating, and I never helped graduate a set of children before. The third was because I couldn’t finish the school year in the way I wanted to. The fourth was because the kids I had rotated with a group of students from sixth to eighth grade as their math teacher and felt a deep sense of loss and pride at once. The last was because, after a tumultuous year in which one particular administrator tried to bully me out of the profession, my students restored my belief in teaching again. It’s been more than a decade as my cries simply became sighs.
So at the end of season 1 of Abbott Elementary when we see the protagonist Ms. Teagues shed a bittersweet tear after a reassuring message to the audience, it’s something I connected with too deeply.
For America, Abbott Elementary has offered a plethora of laughs and moments of cringe. For teachers, it might even have offered moments of solace. Not since Boston Public (or most of Season 4 of The Wire) has our profession felt so accurately represented, even while being satirized at the same time. The absurd and insecure administrator. The rough yet kindhearted white teacher people don’t mess with. The newbie liberal who’s naively optimistic about their academic legerdemain. The veteran teacher who serves as the institution and the soul of the school’s functions. The custodian with random quips and secret stories for those willing to ask. The teacher who’s ambivalent about their station in life and disguises it with a stern veneer. The ebullient rookie finding new life in teaching even as they try to make sense of their personal life.
If you’ve been in the profession long enough, you see these characters get closer to the colleagues you’ve had over the years. Some (like Mr. Eddie, for example) even feel too close to you (read: me).
This show feels even more necessary as the profession is under serious turmoil. As many as 570,000 educators have left the profession, depending on how you look at the numbers. On the one hand, the pandemic has had a deleterious effect on the teaching workforce. Many of us who’d been asking our school systems to rectify working conditions, including capacity for digital learning, were rebuffed repeatedly and systemically. This happened across the country, whether the teaching force was unionized or not. With over 16,000 school districts and a decentralized decision-making structure, the United States was bound to have a mess on its hands when real crises happen. While some federal policymakers have collaborated on some common-sense solutions, we’re still further away from making the teaching profession an attractive option for real recruitment and retention.
Plus, with so many educators turning their hobbies into side hustles, the phrase “do what you love and love what you do” has never been so poignant.
Yet, for 22 minutes or so at a time, Abbott gives educators the gift of mirrors. We’re offered the proper level of critique and dignity we deserve, especially for those who teach in less-resourced contexts. How can you not relate to Mr. Hill’s idealism or Ms. Schemmenti’s brusque yet warm attitude? How many of us haven’t had a Ms. Howard down the hall still going about her business even as she can’t stand the newfangled approaches to our work? And maybe Mr. Eddie’s cool and stalwart demeanor comes not just from a strict upbringing but understanding that he prefers being taken seriously by everyone around him (yes, that’s my mirror). Even Janelle James’ portrayal of Principal Coleman gives off a loveable quirkiness that had held together many a staff (don’t ask me how I know).
But Quinta Brunson as Ms. Teagues truly grounds the stories as the central character not because of anything she did in particular, but because she’s willing and able to activate her innocence about “how things work” to a comedic fault. For non-educators, they’ll look at this as a flaw, but to educators who are about that life, we see it more as a necessary level of learning. The teacher you think you have to be or want to be as a teacher is usually not the teacher you actually end up becoming. The tools you acquire by failing, by falling, by crying all become part of the teacher persona who’s equal parts compassionate, demanding, and thus effective.
Becoming that teacher doesn’t happen overnight, but, with dramatizations like Abbott Elementary, we get to watch it more intimately, even if absurdly. That might someday hold the door for the next generation of educators to pass through, and let them know what we went through when teaching felt like this.