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How 'Abbott Elementary' helps teachers process the absurd realities of their job

Quinta Brunson plays Janine, <em>Abbott Elementary</em>'s plucky protagonist who will stop at nothing to get her students what they need. Brunson, a Philadelphia native, is also the show's creator.
Gilles Mingasson
Quinta Brunson plays Janine, Abbott Elementary's plucky protagonist who will stop at nothing to get her students what they need. Brunson, a Philadelphia native, is also the show's creator.

In the pilot episode of the award-winning sitcom Abbott Elementary, a student pees on a classroom rug. Nicole Wyglendowski has been hooked on the show ever since.

"That was brilliant," says Wyglendowski, a special education teacher in North Philadelphia. "It shows the crazy stuff you don't think about when you're like, 'Oh, I'll be a teacher someday.'"

The show, which is nearing the end of its second season, is set in a fictional Philadelphia public school, not unlike the one Wyglendowski has worked at for the last five years.

She says that rug moment, and what followed — the student's teacher, Janine, learns there's no money for a replacement — encapsulates the realities of working in an under-resourced district like Philadelphia. In the show, some of Janine's colleagues tell her to let it go, but she refuses. That's something Wyglendowski can relate to.

"I feel that to my core," she says. "I'm like, I might be naive, but I just don't think that this is good enough."

The rug episode is just one example of how Abbott Elementary draws inspiration from the very real conditions in Philadelphia's public schools. Philadelphia is the poorest of the country's 10 largest cities, and its school district has long suffered from chronic underfunding. The average Philly school is also more than 70 years old — most don't have central air conditioning and were built using lead and asbestos, conditions that have resulted in short and long-term building closures.

Wyglendowski dismisses some of the often-heard critiques that Abbott exaggerates conditions in Philadelphia schools, and if conditions really are that bad maybe we shouldn't be laughing.

"What's exaggerated?" she says. "If anything, I feel like it's not exaggerated."

She knows Philly teachers who don't watch Abbott because it hits too close to home. But she and other local teachers tell NPR they like the show because it's a comedy, and there's truth in every joke.

"I find it cathartic," Wyglendowski explains. "I can't believe they're actually talking about this on TV and I have to laugh because if you don't laugh you will cry."

The show helps teachers process the absurd realities of their jobs

Wyglendowski is an Abbott super fan and constantly compares herself to its characters. One minute she sees herself in Jacob, the corny history teacher, and the next in Janine, the show's plucky protagonist who will stop at nothing to get her students what they need.

She watches the show every week and live-tweets the whole thing. So when NPR decided to bring some Philly teachers together to talk about Abbott, she gladly agreed to organize a watch party.

The teachers bring wine and snacks, including a block of spicy wasabi cream cheese.

"Don't take a big, honking bite," cautions middle school math teacher Maura McDaid.

While they nosh, they discuss the show and how it portrays the state of Philadelphia's school buildings.

There's an episode where Janine, played by Abbott creator and Philly native Quinta Brunson, tries to fix a flickering light and accidentally blows out the power in parts of the building.

McDaid says just like the building in Abbott, her school is plagued with issues: It took 18 months for a broken pane of glass in her door to get replaced, and she recently got locked in her classroom because the doorknob was busted.

"Are you serious?" third-grade teacher Sam Crittenden asks in disbelief.

"Twice," McDaid says. "Once my class got locked in it with me."

McDaid's favorite character is the show's outrageously unqualified principal, Ava. After that student pees on the classroom rug in the pilot, Ava comes up with the money for a new one but decides to spend the funds on something else: a sign with the school's name — and her face on it.

"Thank god for the school district, because they gave us $3,000 and I had to spend all of it," Ava says after revealing her purchase.

To be clear, McDaid likes her principal and doesn't think most are anywhere near as bad as Ava. But she does think the character demonstrates a very real disconnect.

"Watching the show and trying to figure out sometimes why you would possibly do what [Ava] does I think reflects sometimes on what teachers feel with administration," McDaid explains. "It's like why would you do that? We don't understand and the communication isn't always great, so it's hard to say you've got our best interests [in mind]."

The show helps the teachers feel seen and allows them to process the sometimes absurd realities of teaching.

Like for Crittenden, how teaching third grade means having to be an expert in everything — including dinosaurs.

"I messed up and said, 'Pterodactyl, flying dinosaur,' and this one little girl in my class got so mad at me," she says with a laugh.

She immediately checked her notes and corrected herself: Pterodactyls weren't dinosaurs, they were flying reptiles.

Crittenden's story leads the teachers to another topic: just how much material is packed into each grade level. While they appreciate a rigorous curriculum, the teachers say it sometimes feels unreasonable.

In the show's second season, veteran teacher Barbara speaks directly to this challenge: "Being a teacher is being asked to do the impossible year after year and the only solution is to show up every day and try our best."

McDaid brings up another piece of advice from Barbara: Talk to your students' families.

In one episode, a new teacher had a student who arrived late to school every day. Barbara tells the newbie to talk to the child's mother, and after he explains that her son could fall behind and get held back, she starts bringing him early.

McDaid has had similar conversations with parents.

"I think the show reflects that teachers really do talk to parents and try to learn about the kids they're working with," she says.

Teachers do have some notes for Abbott

Abbott doesn't always get everything right.

On the show, the characters hang out constantly, but in reality, the teachers say they're so busy in their classrooms, they barely see the other adults in their school buildings.

There are also topics the show hasn't touched on, like high-stakes standardized tests, which don't always line up with the curriculum teachers are supposed to follow.

Middle school math teacher McDaid says the Pythagorean theorem comes late in the eighth-grade curriculum, almost at the end of the school year, but her students need to know it to do well on the state's spring standardized test. So she teaches the unit earlier than she's supposed to and advises other teachers to do the same.

"It's tough," she says, searching for the words to describe her frustration. "It's just tough."

Wyglendowski says she sometimes wishes the show would go harder when it comes to the impact poverty has on students and schools. But Abbott Elementary is a comedy, she concedes, and if it weren't, she probably wouldn't watch it.

At least, she says, "They are opening up a dialogue."

The other teachers agree.

"I don't want the drama," Crittenden says. "I could go to work for that."

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Audio story produced by: Lauren Migaki
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson

Copyright 2023 WHYY

Aubri Juhasz
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.
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