Courtesy Disney General Entertainment Press

Textbook pages hanging by a literal thread. Limp fried chicken for lunch. Light fixtures flickering in the hallway. Low salaries—almost insultingly so— for employees who go above and beyond. The problems with public schools seem like a broken record, but leave it to the NBC hit show Abbott Elementary, perhaps premiering at the right time, while simultaneously evoking a collective “Finally!” from viewers, to make people think critically about the state of education in America’s major cities.

The mockumentary sitcom’s creator Quinta Brunson (a viral meme-comedian turned author, also in HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show) stars as the chipper, unjaded second grade teacher, Janine Teagues, at the show’s namesake set in West Philadelphia, Brunson’s hometown. The show follows the day-to-day lives of teachers working at an underfunded and underperforming public school consisting of mainly Black students. In true sitcom fashion, Brunson finds an equilibrium of depicting both the wins and frustrations of teachers who surpass their job description while leaders and administrators fail to do so. 

Brunson’s fierce teacher squad includes a look at the array of educators we may know too well through our own experiences in school: the aloof, self-obsessed principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James); veteran no-nonsense kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph); comeback Italian second grade teacher Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter); white guilt-lamenting history teacher Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti, currently onstage at Steppenwolf); and serious-mannered but compassionate substitute Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams).

The pilot premiered last December, but the show made some serious waves when the second episode released nearly a month later, when nine million people tuned in, making it the most viewed ABC comedy telecast of either a new or returning series in nearly two years (after Modern Family’s finale in April 2020). It makes sense why so many people of all ages are raving about Abbott—especially urban city teachers who tread the delicate dance that is the relationship between teachers and administration.

January 4—the same day millions watched Janine take it upon herself to fix a broken, blinking light bulb in the school’s hallway because the off-center janitor (William Stanford Davis) says it’s “above my paygrade”—the Chicago Teachers Union voted during a heated dispute between city officials to conduct classes remotely after COVID cases surged. The day after, headlines in local papers ran rampant as CPS teachers were locked out of their school accounts by city officials.

Although Abbott doesn’t address the complications of education in a pandemic, Brunson does tackle the runaround selfishness and broken promises that leaders in urban schools make.

Take, for instance, when Janine has a student who amusingly urinates on her classroom rug and she approaches her principal about possible funds for a replacement. After emergency funds from the school district are requested and granted, to Janine’s short-lived sense of accomplishment, Principal Coleman makes an announcement that the $3,000 budget, to the staff’s dismay, has been entirely spent on a plastic school sign, decorated with a portrait of an unapologetic, grinning Principal Coleman. Albeit comical, especially when Janine critiques her poor choice, Coleman fires back with a hair flip, “You know, fix the outside, inside takes care of itself!”

My unwavering love and appreciation for Abbott remains loyal, but unfortunately, real-life teaching isn’t (always) a sitcom, where the solution of problems can be solved in 22-minute episodes.

In January, I left my high school charter teaching position after only six months, because of how the administration felt more like a culmination of Principal Colemans than they did Janine Teagueses—obsessed with image, reputation, and self-fulfilling prophecies rather than serving the students they claim they want to nurture and uplift.

According to a December 2021 WBEZ Chicago article, “Charter schools educate about 51,500 Chicago children—or about 15% of all CPS students—at a cost of $826 million in taxpayer dollars this year.” Moreover, Elevate Chicago reports on charter schools: “Black & Hispanic students make up 97% of enrollment in Chicago’s charter public schools, compared to 83% of students in Chicago’s public schools as a whole.”

In addition to the burnout I experienced from the 40-hour work week, with about ten extra hours outside of the classroom to plan lessons and grade, I watched my students go eight-hour days without a study hall or break other than their 25-minute lunch, where inadequate and often questionable food was served in class instead of a spaced-out, COVID-conscious cafeteria. Not to mention, school culture was dim because there were little to no extracurriculars, and events where only “passing” students could attend (even though the school offered no type of peer tutoring or after-school office hours). Perhaps this could be predicted, when, at the beginning of the school year, instead of thoroughly going over curriculum, discussing funding issues, and solidifying technology for all students, my principal was going on Facebook Live to promote enrollment. 

Teachers—especially teaching primarily BIPOC students—as Ms. Schemmenti says at the end of the pilot: “We are admin. We are social workers. We are therapists. We are second parents. Hell, sometimes, we’re even first.” The sentiment rings true, but it’s a bittersweet one, as educators continue to fight for administration and city leaders to help carry the heavy load so many educators hold, and to distribute funds and resources that every child, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, deserves.