In the second episode of “Abbott Elementary,” a new ABC mockumentary about a group of (mostly) dedicated educators in an underfunded public school in Philadelphia, a second-grade teacher named Janine resolves to fix a flickering hallway ceiling light that the school had ignored.
“The more senior teachers are just used to giving in,” says Janine, the bright-eyed protagonist (played by the show’s creator, Quinta Brunson), “but I, however, am young, sprightly and know where they keep the ladder.”
For Maurice Watkins, a 28-year-old music teacher in Maryland, Janine’s take-charge approach was laughably familiar. Just recently, he had taken a trip to a discount store to buy mops and brooms to clean the classroom floors of the three public schools where he teaches. While the traditional classrooms undergo a regular cleaning, the spaces where he teaches band and orchestra do not.
“As a teacher, you’re left to fix it yourself,” said Watkins, who works with fourth through sixth graders. “Almost every day I go through one of those situations.”
(Luckily, Watkins’s attempts at janitorial duties did not go sideways like Janine’s did: After she adjusted a loose wire, much of the school’s power went out.)
Six episodes in, Brunson’s “Abbott Elementary” has quickly become a talker among teachers who see themselves and their colleagues reflected in the show’s main characters, who are repeatedly pushed to their wits’ end by administrative chaos, paltry resources and the antics of their students. On social media, some viewers gushed about how relatable the show is to them.
The ratings have been strong thus far, with more than 7 million total viewers across all platforms over roughly the first month after the premiere, according to ABC. (There’s Hollywood buzz, too: On Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, the host brought on Joyce Abbott, Brunson’s sixth-grade teacher whom she named the show after, bringing the actress to tears.)
Teachers say they recognize the fictional school’s staff in their own halls: the young teacher who is too new to be cynical, the self-serving principal, the ace veteran teacher who is stubbornly set in her ways and the white teacher who falls all over himself trying to seem progressive around his Black students and colleagues.
Watkins said that the day after the first episode of “Abbott Elementary” aired in December, “every teacher at school was talking about it.” For some, though, it hit too close to home.
“Some teachers I know can’t even watch it,” Watkins said.
Teachers say they identify strongly with the challenges Janine and her colleagues face on a daily basis: a persistent lack of funding, behavioral problems of students and struggles with introducing new educational technologies.
“D — all of the above,” said Alisha Gripp, a principal at a charter middle school in Kansas City, Mo. One aspect of the show that she adamantly does not identify with, however, is the school’s incompetent principal, Ava Coleman (played by Janelle James), who spends her time trimming her Chia Pet and organizing student files by who has the hottest dad.
“I think she’s hilarious — but I am nothing like her,” Gripp said with a laugh.
Gripp, who has been an educator for 17 years, said she thought “Abbott Elementary” was a more true-to-life depiction of teaching than those in much other Hollywood fare, including “Boston Public,” a Fox drama from David E. Kelley. That show tended to lean into melodrama in the fictional high school where it was set, making Gripp think to herself, “They’d be fired; they’d be fired; that kid would be suspended.”
“It really is cool to have a more realistic, but still entertaining, take on education,” she added.
Much of the show’s background comes from Brunson’s mother, who was a public-school teacher in Philadelphia for 40 years, according to two of the show’s executive producers, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. The producers and writers also interviewed teachers, school staff members and board members about their jobs.
Many of the plot points come from real-life educators, including the main arc of an episode in which Janine becomes wildly successful at using TikTok to ask people to donate school supplies. It comes off as both funny and grim because she has to resort to social media for basic materials like scissors and glue.
The TikTok episode reminded Kristina A. Holzweiss, a 52-year-old former teacher and librarian who is now an education-technology specialist at a Long Island high school, of a time several years ago when she independently raised more than $100,000 to buy enrichment materials like Chromebooks and a 3-D printer for her library. This was before TikTok took off, but teachers could use a website called DonorsChoose, which helped them with crowdfunding for their classrooms.
“Teachers should not have to do this; this is not in our job description,” Holzweiss said, “but teachers always put their students first.”
For some, a show that highlights hard-working, committed educators is particularly welcome right now. As schools across the country reopened after extended pandemic closures, teachers were put in the center of battles over mask mandates and in-person versus remote learning.
The struggles of teaching during a pandemic — as well as long-term issues around low pay, benefits and erratic hours — contributed to a nationwide labor shortage at schools, which have struggled to find substitutes for sick teachers and teachers who quit.
“When the pandemic happened and everything closed, teachers were heroes,” said Jennifer Dinh, a 31-year-old second-grade teacher in Chino Hills, Calif. “But as soon as the next school year rolled around, it all went out the door.”
“Abbott Elementary” tackles the issue of teacher burnout from the outset, showing a young teacher walking out of the building carrying a box of her belongings and raising a choice finger on her way out. (“More turnovers than a bakery,” quips Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, who has been teaching in the school district for 20 years.)
A theme of the show is the clash between young, newer teachers like Janine, who are learning the physical and emotional toll of trying to fix a dysfunctional school, and the more experienced teachers, who have learned to accept certain things — a flickering light, for example — so that they avoid burnout.
“If we burn out, who’s here for these kids?” asks Melissa Schemmenti (played by Lisa Ann Walter), a straight-talking, Sicilian American second-grade teacher.
After more than three decades of teaching, Jocelyn Hitchcock, a 57-year-old fan of the show, is determined not to burn out. After 20 years as a music teacher, she grew frustrated by dwindling funding for the arts and shifted to the core subjects. This past fall, Hitchcock started teaching at a small elementary school on the Walker River Paiute reservation in Nevada.
Her school has recently dealt with a serious shortage of teachers (the principal has had to teach in the classroom), and she now spends time before and after school tutoring children to help them catch up from the learning deficits created by the pandemic.
In “Abbott Elementary,” she said, she finds validation in seeing people on TV going through what she experiences day to day.
But because the show is set in a nonpandemic world (at least thus far), Holzweiss said she thought the show was missing an exploration of the greatest challenges that teachers face right now: hybrid teaching, staffing shortages and students lagging behind academically and socially.
“It’s an entirely different world now,” she said.