When art and life are practically inseparable, a work of art becomes both an escape from reality and a relatable experience. This is exemplified in the new mockumentary-style sitcom, Abbott Elementary. The show follows a group of passionate school teachers at Abbott Elementary, a fictional public school set in Philadelphia. While the show is laugh-out-loud funny and has its fair share of absurd and surreal moments, there are overarching elements that reflect the truly grueling efforts that educators take in order to keep their students intellectually engaged, while supporting their social and emotional well-being.
Abbott Elementary is mired in problems that are synonymous to the glaring real-life issues throughout schools in the United States. At the top of the list is a lack of funding for basic supplies like textbooks, area rugs and art supplies. The school itself has frequent structural problems such as faulty electricity and shoddy infrastructure. With too few personnel onsite and limited resources from the city, state and federal governments, it is often up to the teachers to find creative and flexible solutions to these drawbacks and obstacles.
Those of us who teach or have taught in schools might take some or all of the teacher’s endeavors to heart. Creating TikTok videos and Go Fund Me campaigns to raise money for classroom supplies, or spending their own money on learning materials, is par for the course for the contemporary educator; as is spending personal time (nights, weekends and holidays) outside of work planning learning segments and checking in on the welfare and well-being of students. Abbott Elementary encapsulates the multifaceted nature of working in education and the well rounded qualities that the teachers exhibit in order to do their jobs. Although the characters and storylines are at times larger than life, they are an accurate reflection of the state of education and teaching today. Rather than provide easy laughs and cheap thrills, the show looks at the crux of school policy and educational methodology. It reflects what is being done admirably already and what we can collectively do to highlight the plight of public schools and its effect on students, parents/caregivers, teachers and the community at large.
It is evident that many of these experiences are not currently widespread public knowledge. Teachers are frequently treated or regarded with contempt or disrespect by a variety of individuals. The people and committees who should be supporting their well-being are simply not up to the task. There are major stakeholders in the educational policy making process who are not experienced in pedagogy or childhood development. This is portrayed in the show through the satirical antics of an unqualified principal and the ineptitude of certain school district leaders. And it is blatantly apparent in real-life instances such as school board dysfunction (see: Mannes, 2015 and Johnson-Duel, 2022) and the general attacks and public disparagement of educators (see: Walker, 2021).
As Quinta Brunson, the creator and star of the series states: “We don’t want to create an environment where we say these issues are okay and shouldn’t be fixed, that’s not what we’re going to do. What we want to do is say, ‘Look at these people who do the job anyway – how can we support them further? How can we take a look at our school system and say it shouldn’t be this way any more.” (quoted in Del Rosario, 2021).
Nevertheless, both the teachers in the television series and in real schools and classrooms persist. The reason is because to become an educator you need to maintain and develop an adaptable and multidimensional outlook that supports and empowers the diversity of the student body. The educators in Abbott Elementary are a microcosm for teachers across the nation. In order to get the public onboard with meaningful educational reform, educators need to be seen and understood as complex human beings. The media and entertainment industry has a tendency for polarizing and sensationalizing experiences in education. They simply cover either very good or very bad events, but these portrayals do not fairly represent what is really going on behind the scenes in classrooms and schools.
Art has the power to both inform and heighten our emotional responses to what is going on in the world around us. This is why Abbott Elementary has had such a profound response from viewers. Over seven million people have tuned in since the show premiered, making it one of the more widely watched programs on television today. Because the show’s message is resonating with current and former teachers, it is clear that this work of art has the potential to enlighten non-educators about the intricacies of the educational system.
Abbott Elementary‘s use of humor is a strategic tactic that provides catharsis for in-practice teachers and educates the mainstream about the trials and tribulations that public schools and educators face on a daily basis. It is refreshing to feel validated through the well-rounded personas of the main characters. Although the show relies on caricatures for comedic effect, these characters are some of the most realistic and uplifting representations of educators in the history of popular culture (see: Asmelash, 2022).
In the real world of teaching, humor is a good way to differentiate learning, raise student morale and strengthen interclassroom relationships. Studies show that student engagement and retention are heightened when humor is incorporated in lectures, in-class activities and homework assignments (see: Carlson, 2011). It also gives students the agency to facilitate their own learning and supplement their understanding of the course material in a personal manner (see: Shatz, 2019). One pertinent example is how the use of memes and TikToks, which typically involve humorous or off-beat perspectives, have been implemented in order to connect new content with prior knowledge and relatable cultural experiences (see: Is There Time for TokTok in Art Education and Art-fly Learning).
Works of art and media reveal so much about the heart and psyche of the subjects and content that are being expressed, which is clearly the motivation behind Abbott Elementary. As Brunson assesses, “I think that’s what’s really important about this – giving people a behind-the-scenes look of what teachers really do through humor and heart and straight up comedy.”
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Asmelash, Leah. “‘Abbott Elementary’ has teachers laughing — and relating,” CNN, 2 February 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/02/entertainment/abbott-elementary-real-teachers-experiences-cec/index.html
Carlson, Keith A. (2011). The impact of humor on memory: Is the humor effect about humor?. Humor – International Journal of Humor Research, 24(1), 21-41.
Del Rosario, Alexandra. “‘Abbott Elementary’: Creator & Star Quinta Brunson Says Comedy Series Gives Public School Teachers The On-Screen Depth They Deserve,” Deadline, 2 December 2021. https://deadline.com/2021/12/abbott-elementary-creator-star-quinta-brunson-says-comedy-series-gives-public-school-teachers-the-on-screen-depth-they-deserve-tca-1234883651/
Johnson-Duell, Christine. “Tennessee school board denies students valuable classroom lessons by banning ‘Maus'” Tennessean, 1 February 2022. https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2022/02/01/tennessee-school-board-denies-students-valuable-lesson-banning-maus/9289410002/
Mannes, John. “The Problem With Our School Boards.” EdWeek, 3 March 2015. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-the-problem-with-our-school-boards/2015/03
Shatz, Itamar. “How to Use Humor in Order to Teach and Learn More Effectively,” The Learning Scientists, 5 September 2019. https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2019/9/5-1
Walker, Tim. “Educators ‘Under Immediate Threat’ in Culture of Fear and Violence,” neaToday, 15 October 2021. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/educators-under-immediate-threat-culture-fear-and-violence