As an inner-city teacher, I can say confidently that most people have no idea what I do. That is largely because there is really not a good representation of inner city teaching in the media. Your choices for inner-city education films are typically white-savior centered melodramas or characters of color conquering all obstacles simply through hard work and perseverance, and neither of those narratives paints an accurate picture. Finally, I now have a show that I can point people to if they want a somewhat realistic portrayal of life as an inner-city educator, and ironically, it’s a comedy.
“Abbott Elementary” is a mockumentary style workplace sitcom along the lines of “Parks & Recreation” and “The Office” but set in an inner-city Philadelphia public school. Most of the shows in this genre generally take an exaggerated comedic tone. I have never heard a cop say that “Reno 911!” is an accurate depiction of police work. However, many teachers that have seen “Abbott Elementary” believe it’s actually a pretty good representation of teaching in a Title I school. The show is hilarious, and there is enough obvious absurdity to keep people aware that they are watching a comedy and not a VICE News exposé but the show strikes the perfect balance between realism and hyperbole.
The show centers around an idealistic second grade teacher in her second year named Janine Teagues played by Quinta Brunson. The general premise of the show is her trying to overcome all of the obstacles that come with teaching in a poorly funded and poorly ran school. The other principal members of the cast are Jacob Hill another struggling second year teacher who serves as the “white liberal” archetype for the show. Barbara Howard and Melissa Schemmenti are the savvy veteran teachers Janine and Jacob look up too. Ava Coleman is the ill-equipped incompetent principal and the human manifestation of the obstacles an inner-city school faces. Finally, there is Gregory Eddie the long-term substitute teacher who is maybe a love interest …
The characters themselves are very common archetypes but where “Abbott Elementary” shines is the details.
Janine and Jacob came in with 20 teachers the previous year, and they are the only ones left. Barbara mentions that even the ones who stay only stick it out “two years.” This is a thinly veiled reference to Teach for America (TFA). Just for the record, I am a TFA alumni and still at my same school 11 years later … but this stereotype is common in urban education circles and not completely unfounded.
Barbara and Melissa are excellent teachers, but are older and much more cynical about the system. They have become masters of teaching despite the system’s flaws. They constantly try to temper Janine’s expectations. In real life, every school has a Barbara or Melissa.
Jacob constantly talks about his time in Africa and references the book “White Fragility” which has become ubiquitous in the ed-reform scene.
Gregory mentions he was originally slotted to be the principal of the school but is later shown to be a struggling teacher himself. That sounds asinine and probably looks like a character oversight in writing to some. However, young people who can’t actually teach that well can become administrators quickly in inner city schools. As a matter of fact, a twenty something leading a school in which he himself can’t manage a classroom wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.
When the school gets a sudden windfall of money, principal Ava spends it on a giant picture sign of herself. Obviously that level of buffoonery is meant for comedic relief, but if you dig into the way real schools spent their extra COVID money you will see purchases that are just as silly.
There are so many accurate details in the show that I would believe the writers actually locked themselves in a Title I school for years.
Even if you are not a teacher, there are plenty of funny moments for you to latch on to. It is a great show regardless of whether or not you get the underlying themes and jokes … but it is a phenomenal one if you do.
I don’t know what it says about the education system that the most accurate representation is a mockumentary style comedy, but I love it.
This actual inner-city teacher gives “Abbott Elementary” a 10 out of 10.