Around the nation, the education system is under increased pressure as we look to schools, teachers, and librarians to solve every cultural issue under the moon while we refuse to give them better pay, smaller classes, and the resources they and their students need to thrive.
The fervor around critical race theory and curricula that deal with racism and gender identity has only seemed to fuel anti-education fervor. Across the country, state governments are moving swiftly to introduce and pass laws forbidding curriculum that addresses the racism that has been interwoven throughout our nation’s history.
Many states are also passing legislation that requires teachers to post lessons and classroom text online. While seemingly benign, these efforts are often designed with the intention of giving parents the ability to contest literature that addresses subjects like identity and bias. By their very nature, these bills take an oppositional stance, implying that teachers and schools have something to hide from parents who, in the past, have been able to gain insight into curriculum more amicably by reviewing the course syllabus, talking with their child’s teacher, or looking over their students’ assignments. The bills add an extra layer of work to already overburdened teachers and contribute to a culture of mistrust toward educators – especially if they are dealing with subject matter related to diversity and equity. All of this comes in the midst of a global pandemic that has left many children behind, with teachers often figuring out how to pick up the pieces.
The pressure on schools is unrelenting and, for many educators, untenable. In a survey of its members, the 3 million-member National Education Association found that more than half of teachers surveyed plan to leave the profession sooner than they planned and 90% believed burnout to be a serious problem. Districts are also struggling with how to deal with teacher shortages and teachers who are so burnt out they don’t finish out the school year.
With all the pessimism around education, ABC’s sunny, hope-filled Abbott Elementary couldn’t have come at a better time. Told in mockumentary style (a la The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation), Abbott Elementary follows Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson), a young Black teacher who is early in her career and navigating the challenges that come with trying to do her job with too much naivete and too few resources.
Though the cast features two white main characters, Abbott Elementary feels like a Black show. Janine and her teaching role model are both Black; her “will-they-won’t-they” romantic interest is Black; most of the school staff is Black; the students and parents are Black; and many of the references draw from Black culture.
Yet this is a Black show that isn’t concerned about explaining Black culture. Abbott Elementary assumes viewers will remain invested even if they don’t necessarily understand the cultural significance of having a step team, what ESSENCE Fest is, or why the principal might be playing the Mary J. Blige classic “I’m Goin’ Down” as she prepares to be fired from her job. Maybe that’s because even if some of the references sail over the head, the overall humor still consistently sticks the landing.
In its unapologetically Black and positive outlook, Abbott Elementary is a counternarrative to anti-teacher rhetoric. While legislators look to pass laws that assume teachers are out to corrupt and students, Abbott Elementary shows a diverse faculty of teachers who would do anything to bring out the best in their students and help them succeed.
I hope that as viewers enjoy the show, they remember that Abbott Elementary is a reflection of what is great about educators: their heart, their tenacity, and their commitment to their students. Forget the caricatures playing out in the news, the show seems to be saying. This is what teachers are really like. In fact, the show was inspired by two real-life teachers: one of Brunson’s middle school teachers as well as her own mother.
This is what teachers are really like. I saw it for myself when I spent five and a half years teaching secondary English before leaving the profession nearly five years ago. I was like Janine Teagues: hopeful about what could be accomplished and sometimes disappointed by reality. But unlike her, I couldn’t quite manage to maintain my optimism.
I first left the teaching profession about seven years ago when I was burnt out from teaching in a public school, my second fulltime teaching job. The school was great and, like many teachers, I loved my students and the process of watching them learn. However, the work was mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding. At the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I had little energy to be present to my family and none to be present to myself. Plus, I was losing weight and sleep.
Once, I got blood work done to get a better deal on my monthly insurance premium. The doctor voiced concern about my cortisol levels.
“They are really high,” said the doctor. “Are you under any stress?”
I wanted to laugh. Of course I was. To be a teacher was to be stressed, it seemed to me. I was constantly worried: about whether my students were going to pass the standardized tests that would determine their grade progression; about what happened to the students that disappeared with no explanation (Did they move? Were they hurt? Did they get in trouble?); about whether my lesson plans would effectively engage students and help them feel seen; about how to, as one assistant principal told me, I would “get control” of my more challenging classrooms. And this was before Covid and the current anti-education movements.
I remember looking at teachers I considered role models and experts in their craft; many were still working long hours and struggling to keep up with the demands. I thought of my children, and how unavailable I was to them emotionally, and I thought of myself, who was sleep-deprived and increasingly anxious. I knew I couldn’t keep up the pace. I told my principal I wouldn’t be returning the following year. A teacher who had just retired from another school told me I did the right thing. “I spent so many evenings grading papers instead of hanging out with my family, and I regret it.” Her words were comforting, but I still felt guilty for leaving.
Later that summer, I got a call from a private school asking whether I’d consider teaching there. That fall, after thinking I had sworn off teaching for good, I wrote up my syllabus. I enjoyed two more years of teaching in a less stressful environment – I had smaller classrooms, more time to prepare lessons, and no standardized tests to worry about – but when we moved to Fort Worth, I didn’t take up teaching again. I just couldn’t see myself returning to the classroom. I still can’t.
At least Abbott Elementary helps me remember what I’m missing.
One of my favorite scenes comes in the second episode, when Janine has a conversation with one of the school’s more experienced teachers. “How do you…stop yourselves from caring too much?” Janine asks.
“Because it’s the opposite,” the teacher tells Janine. “We care so much we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s here for these kids? That’s why you gotta take care of yourself.”
Their conversation reminded me of how during the first week of school one year, I was so nervous about the upcoming year I was near tears. Another teacher took me aside and comforted me.
“They don’t pay us enough to get this upset,” she said. “No job does.”
Refuse to burn out, she was telling me.
It’s advice I still remember now, even in a different career. It would be the advice I would hold dear if I ever stepped into a classroom again, and the advice I would give to any new teacher full of hope as they enter a profession so consistently maligned and so inconsistently supported.
Recently, one of my daughter’s teachers asked whether I’d be interested in getting back into teaching.
“Tell him I said no,” I said.
When she did, she said her teacher took the response in stride. “She’ll be back,” he told her. “She still misses teaching.”
In some ways, he’s right.