While schools and high schools in particular are popular settings for sit-coms and dramas, they nearly exclusively focus on the lives of students (think Saved by the Bell from the 80s or the more recent Never Have I Ever). The tumultuous phase of adolescence and all the drama that comes along with it, makes it the perfect material for humour and great coming-of-age stories.
The teachers in such shows receive more or less standard treatment and come in familiar tropes – there is the villain (the cruel teacher who eventually faces a moral defeat at the hands of the student-protagonist), the cheer-leader (the teacher who is the constant supporter and mentor for the student-protagonist), or the butt-of-jokes (the teacher as a caricature; someone who takes themselves and what they do all too seriously and becomes the source of much humour).
Abbott Elementary can be counted in a minority of shows where the central characters are the teachers and not the students. Another show that is similar in its focus, albeit very different in its treatment and tonality, is the Danish series Rita. Both Abbott Elementary and Rita depict the lives of teachers in public schools in America and Denmark respectively. But while Rita qualifies as a drama, Abbott Elementary is an out-and-out American-style mockumentary and situational comedy.
With just about one season out, this show portrays the everyday struggles of primary school teachers in, as one of the character states, an “underfunded, poorly managed” school in Philadelphia, America. It gets established in episode 1 that there is a film crew invited by the principal that is documenting the on-goings of the school meant to be shown on TV (thus facilitating the mockumentary). This enables the characters to look directly into the camera and share their asides and inner feelings with the audience, a device that makes the viewers feel a lot more involved and invested in the characters.
While the show revolves around five teachers, old and young; and the self-involved principal, the central character is Janine Teagues, a young and energetic teacher of second grade, who holds together the thread of the show. Janine’s endearing optimism, bordering on naiveté, is where a lot of the feel-good factor of the show comes from. Janine and her early-career contemporaries, Jacob and Gregory, are frequently contrasted with the two senior and experienced teachers who have it all together: Barbara and Melissa. The principal, Ava, is shown to have landed the job through corruption. Although she has a charming and funny presence, Ava’s character is the least likeable as it symbolizes all that is wrong with the ‘system’ in terms of incompetence, red tape and siphoning of money.
The show explores several themes which will be all too familiar and relatable for most teachers across the world. The theme of senior and more experienced teachers vis-à-vis younger and less experienced teachers is one that is the source of a lot of hilarity. The innocence and idealism of the younger lot is well juxtaposed with the skepticism and real-world attitude of the older ones. It’s not that the older teachers care any less; just that they are only too familiar with the system and wear no rose-tinted glasses. Barbara knows, for instance, that those in positions of power and authority aren’t there to necessarily facilitate better education. The voice of reason and experience, she declares, “…I think the job is working with what you’ve got. So you don’t get let down,” when Janine in her typical style is trying to be idealistic in getting resources from the state. It’s no surprise that Janine is shown to be fangirling on the charming Barbara (that near-perfect teacher, who it’s almost impossible to find a fault with).
Janine and Jacob are the only survivors from the new lot of teachers that joined the previous year, hinting at the resilience required to continue in a seemingly easy profession. As Barbara, snarkily remarks referring to the exodus of the newer teachers, “Why can’t any of them stick it out? More turnovers than in a bakery!”
Gregory, the third new teacher, has a different struggle, as he experiences the pressure of being judged as a male who is teaching primary-grade children. In fact, a recurrent and crucial theme that is emphasized is of teaching being a calling to which this set of people has responded. That is what binds them together and endears them to the audience as real people who struggle, but carry on. As Jacob mentions in one episode, “They say the first year of teaching is hard; what about the second?” and one can extend that to the third, fourth, fifth and so on.
In fact the one thing the show does extremely well is to put the spotlight on the kind of real challenges involved in being a primary school teacher from things ranging from handling children’s pee and vomit, to coping with technology, dealing with policy changes, the proverbial teacher’s salary, and so on. One episode shows Jacob getting bullied or roasted by his students. Maintaining the fine line between bonding with students and maintaining boundaries with them is a relatable challenge for teachers who teach older children.
As someone in India watching a show about a public school in America, Abbott Elementary also signals a lost era. With more than half of the country’s children attending private schools and the overall weakening of the government school system, the realities and unique challenges that public school teachers face may not be the most relatable to private school teachers, who have different kinds of issues to deal with.
Of course, the spirit of ownership and the pure dedication of these teachers is what lends the show its idealistic quality. It is immensely inspiring to watch Janine take on challenges and being supported by her colleagues. However, it’s equally important to remember that the show exists for entertainment and eliciting laughter and feel-good hormones. The realities of emotional labour and the burnout that accompany teaching are better not forgotten. In a rousing moment Barbara says about teachers: “We are admin, we are social workers, we are therapists, we are second parents, hell, sometimes we’re even first!” It’s a powerful moment for sure, but for all the teachers watching, also important to add ‘human’ to that list.
Abbott Elementary is good comfort TV. It’s fitting to have a show depicting the highs and lows of a profession that is so central to being human. In a whole ocean of workplace shows (think The Office, Suits, Grey’s Anatomy and several others) teachers find themselves as the protagonists on a well-made and well-meaning show. More power to teachers!
You can watch Abbott Elementary on Disney Hotstar in India.
The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender, life skills and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at [email protected].