Abbott Elementary Is Right On Time!

Jan 20, 2022 12:00:00 AM

by Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

At a time where we have a growing number of universities shutting down their teacher preparation programs and teachers leaving the profession at alarming rates, ABC’s new sitcom, "Abbott Elementary," has helped in reclaiming the humanity of teachers with creative humor, honesty, style, and grace. Now is the show perfect? Absolutely not. Does it get every detail right about the important work we do as educators? Not at all, but it’s pretty damn close.  

It’s no secret that the pandemic has been more than unkind to teachers. OK, let me be more direct. It’s actually been straight up disrespectful! With all the negativity and turmoil surrounding the teaching profession, it’s nice to have something to smile about during these dark times. I know the show is only a few episodes in, but I can honestly say that "Abbott Elementary" is the most realistic teacher sitcom I’ve ever watched. Unlike most teacher sitcoms, this show feeds me both spiritually and intellectually. In between each belly laugh, I’ve been paying attention to the many important themes that the show is communicating to the viewers. 

Here are a few of the themes that I thought were most noteworthy thus far:        

COMBATING THE TEACHER SAVIOR NARRATIVE AND SETTING BOUNDARIES FOR SELF-CARE

When I became a full-time classroom teacher in 2009, I was intrigued by the romanticized savior narrative of the urban school teacher that we hear so often in our teacher preparation programs.  I drowned myself in a sea of ungraded papers and swam myself to safety, only to be wiped away by the ferocious waves of lesson plans and tons of negative ideas as to what education really was. I believed that logging 60-hour weeks and being the self-proclaimed savior for my underserved students earned me a badge of honor, which I wore with tremendous pride and dignity. That’s how skewed my mindset was as a rookie teacher.  

In the show, the lead character Janine Teagues, played by the show’s creator Quinta Brunson, is clearly suffering a similar fate. Young, overzealous, and naive, she attempts to fix everything that’s wrong with our education system to the point of excessive burnout, while the veteran teachers set personal boundaries to maintain their sanity and overall self-care in the workplace. A perfect example of this is when Ms. Barbara, played by longtime actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, utilizes her lunch break to get her nails done at the salon. The pandemic is pulling us in so many directions and tempting us to serve our students beyond the point of exhaustion. Regardless of our current circumstances, we must accept that toxic productivity is not a sustainable practice and be intentional about developing an internal relationship with grace and self-gratitude. [pullquote]Instead of always thinking, “I gotta do more,” we have to be OK with saying, “My best is more than good enough.”[/pullquote]  

UNDERFUNDING OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS

[pullquote position="right"]For longer than I’ve been an educator, public schools have been severely underfunded[/pullquote] and in dire need of resources. Sadly, I know how it feels to work for a school district that you can’t depend on to provide you with essential classroom resources. As appreciative as I am of Donors Choose for all the times the organization has come through for me in the clutch, a part of me always felt frustrated about sacrificing my out-of-school time to draft a proposal and post it across my many social media platforms to raise money for school supplies and resources that my school district failed to provide. Even worse than that is the annual disheartening feeling I always had when I claimed thousands of dollars worth of out-of-pocket teaching expenses on my taxes only to receive a measly $250 in return.  

The show does an awesome job of displaying the full spectrum of ways in which teachers respond to this issue. You have teachers—like Ms. Melissa—who express feelings of indifference towards their school districts. They respond by rolling up their sleeves and finding alternative ways to secure the resources they need without even bothering to reach out to their school districts for support. Conversely, you have teachers—like Janine—who wholeheartedly believe that their school districts will step up no matter how many times they’ve been screwed over in the past. Here’s the sobering reality—many of us start our careers as Janines but ultimately evolve into Barbaras and Melissas due to our growing discontent with our district’s inability to deliver when we need them the most. 

THE UNDERVALUING OF SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS 

Being a substitute teacher is HARD! You’re entering classroom environments where there is a cemented culture in place and the students don’t know who you are. On top of that, you have to come in and immediately establish yourself as students are trying everything in their power to make your life a living hell. Maybe that wasn’t everyone’s experience with subbing, but it was certainly mine.  

As difficult a job as it was, being thrown into the fire as a substitute teacher early in my career was the greatest thing for my development as a classroom teacher. Through those long and rough days, I gained valuable lessons that have not only carried over into my current work as an education consultant but have also allowed me to grow unwavering respect for all substitute teachers that I still hold to this day. [pullquote]As schools nationwide are losing more and more teachers to COVID, highly competent substitute teachers are becoming harder to find.[/pullquote]  

This is why Gregory is such an important character in “Abbott Elementary.” He’s a substitute teacher who has a genuine heart for the work, but who is still questioning the positive impact he’s already had on the students. The instability of his position is causing him to question whether to remain at Abbott or venture onto a different career path. In order for schools to remain open during this pandemic, a healthy and sizable pool of substitute teachers is highly necessary. If schools are unable to secure substitute teachers, teacher shortages will continue to grow. 

CONFLATING WHITE ALLYSHIP WITH WOKENESS

For my Black and brown teachers, have you ever worked with that one white colleague who means well, but tries way too hard to relate to you?! They’re quick to do such things as drop titles of antiracist books they’ve read, tell you how many Black friends they have, or excessively compliment you for being so smart and articulate. I worked with a few colleagues like that over the years, so whenever I observe Jacob on the show, I’m reminded of them. Although Jacob is not a central character, his presence is important because he serves as the personification of nice racism, which so often gets equated with white allyship.  

Throughout the pilot episode, Jacob engages in a series of cringy actions to prove to his Black colleagues that he’s not racist or shall I say “woke.” He proudly shares about his Teachers Without Borders experience in Zimbabwe, quotes Cornel West and Robin DiAngelo, and unsuccessfully attempts to give dap to Gregory, leading to an awkward interaction. [pullquote position="right"]His wokeness is on full display when everything is safe[/pullquote], but when his Black colleagues boldly called out the principal’s mistreatment of Janine during a staff meeting, he acted like a coward and failed to stand up for Janine. 

Jacob’s behavior throughout the pilot is a microcosm of how “progressive-minded” white educators subconsciously engage in racist actions in their efforts to proclaim wokeness. As I mentioned in my previous piece about nice racism, speaking out about racism is uncomfortable, intimidating, and even scary for most white folx—but that’s what it means to be a true co-conspirator for BIPOC students and colleagues.

At a time when it feels like everybody’s throwing shade and taking direct jabs at the teaching profession, “Abbott Elementary” couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. It’s a mirror of sorts—like Quinta Brunson can really see us—the hard truth, the struggle, the passion, the laughter, the love … the work. If you still haven’t caught an episode, you can check it out now on ABC.com and Hulu. You’ll be glad you did!

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

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