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February 6, 2024
ASCD Blog

5 Things Abbott Elementary Gets Right About Public Education

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The popular TV show illustrates the complexities and challenges of the teaching profession, all while making us laugh.
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5 Things Abbott Elementary Gets Right About Public Education Header Image
Credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
We suspect we aren’t the only educators who were thrilled to see Quinta Brunson win her latest Emmy. She won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series this year for Abbott Elementary, after winning Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2022. We think she is more than deserving of these awards.
As elementary teachers, we tend to be leery of books, movies, and television shows about teachers and public education. We’ve watched too many shows that are disrespectful of teachers or that try to make us out to be heroes. We love our work, and we know the struggles teachers face, but we are almost always disappointed by the way public schools, teachers, students, and families are portrayed in the media—especially in comedy.
However, creator-star Quinta Brunson and the entire Abbott Elementary team have given us what we’ve always dreamed of: a show that gets it. As Season 3 begins this month, we’ve come to love the characters, the messages in each storyline, and most of all, the love and understanding that goes into each episode. The show brings up real issues in public education while staying true to the energy in an elementary school. We see ourselves in so many of the teachers on the show and we’re confident other teachers can relate.

The show brings up real issues in public education while staying true to the energy in an elementary school.

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While there are a few things we’re skeptical of—teachers lecturing young children about science concepts, 30 identical-looking art projects hanging on the wall, and the very long teacher lunch break (have you ever known a teacher who had the time or energy to get their nails done during their lunch break?)—there is so much it gets right!
Here are the top five things we think Abbott Elementary is spot-on about regarding today’s public schools.

1. Good things happen because of teachers.

From the issue of not having the funds needed to teach effectively to the many disruptions punctuating the school day, the obstacles teachers face are real. In nearly every episode of Abbott Elementary, teachers go to extraordinary lengths to make the school a wonderful place for children. Whether it’s starting a school garden, creating a podcasting club, or finding a way to raise money for a field trip, the teachers are always working around the barriers they face and making sure students have what they need.

2. Collaboration and mentoring matters.

Although we only get to know a small portion of the staff at Abbott Elementary, the show captures the importance of adult relationships in schools and how those relationships matter—not only for personal friendships and learning, but for the growth of the school. The two of us have worked together for decades, learning from each other, with each other, and with the other members of our school communities. The relationships and the informal mentoring that happens in schools is key. Each member of the staff matters, and each brings unique strengths, quirks, and passions to their role. Because they are all unique, they help each other in different ways. In the show, for example, Barbara and Melissa both have a veteran teacher’s wisdom, but each shares that wisdom in a different way. It is the collaboration of these individuals in schools that creates a true school community.

3. Public schools are criticized, compared, and underfunded. There is never enough time or money, but teachers keep going.

We appreciated the episode where 1st grade teacher Gregory realizes that there are not enough minutes in the year to teach all the curriculum he is required to teach. He says, “We are set up to fail.”
Abbott Elementary CastCredit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock

The Abbott Elementary cast at the 2023 Critics Choice press room.

Each of us have come to a similar realization during our teaching careers—that there is just not enough time or money to do all that we are mandated to do well, let alone all the things we wish we could do for our students. That’s why how to spend the small grant money to support their school is the topic of conversation throughout several episodes. It is why we often see teachers working while they are eating their lunches. It is why 2nd grade teacher Janine gets excited when “not-so-old” textbooks arrive at the school, only to find out that those are for the charter school down the street. And it is why we are disappointed when Janine can’t paint her classroom to make it the more-inviting color she wants because it is not on the department of education’s “color palette.” The teachers are never surprised by all the inequities. Instead, they come to expect that this is the reality, and their role is to work against and around them.

4. Public schools work hard to educate the whole child.

Although academics are key, Abbott Elementary makes it clear that teachers work hard to teach the whole child every day. From the Step Team that Janine supervises after school to the storytelling assemblies to the school celebrations, teachers know that school is about more than just academics. There are projects and art, there is dancing, and there are field trips. They involve the community and celebrate the city in which they live. Teachers go above and beyond to support students in much more than academics.

5. Public schools are filled with love and commitment.

The love and joy that anchors all the work is evident in every interaction teachers have at Abbott Elementary. They have a love and respect for each other and for their students, and this side of teaching isn’t often shown in the media. No matter the issue—struggling with a child’s behavior or dealing with an unsupportive parent—the teachers work hard to help students and to do what is best for them. This sometimes means inviting a parent in for a conference, or it might mean trying new strategies to support a child. The commitment the teachers have to every individual child and to their role as a public school educator is evident.

Abbott Elementary makes visible the love and commitment teachers have for their students, their work, and their school community.

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In one episode, 2nd grade teacher Melissa says, We do this because we’re supposed to. It’s a calling. You answered. We care so much, we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s here for the kids?”
There are a lot of problems with how much is asked of teachers in public schools, but Abbott Elementary makes visible the love and commitment teachers have for their students, their work, and their school community.
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