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Opinion: 'Abbot Elementary' models Black excellence in education

Efran Menny shows how a hit new show on ABC subtly illustrates how Black teachers and administrators can lead by example in an increasingly fraught educational context.

(ABC/Temma Hankin)

After working in education for a decade, I would never have imagined that a comedy centered around the school day would be as immensely popular as is “Abbott Elementary”.

The show tells the story of a collection of dedicated educators that work in an underserved Philadelphia school but remain impassioned for the educational needs of the students. Though they experience personal and professional hang-ups, their zeal for what’s best for the school always remains.

I can recall Boston Public from my younger years, and over the last 30 years we’ve seen a slew of savior-trope educator films or those with similar themes, such as “Dangerous Minds”, “Hard Ball”, “Coach Carter”, “Half Nelson”, and “Freedom Writers”. Because we now live in a more Black-conscious society, “Abbott” excels where others fell short.

Besides being developed by a Black woman and informed by her experiences, the show opens up a much-needed and authentic look at someone working in a school that lacks resources but compensates powerfully by being a modern, effective educator.

Mission-driven support

In the show, the staff at Abbott Elementary School understand the ancient African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a family.” Through the fluctuations of everyday school life, at the end of each episode, they navigate back to their supportive zone of commitment, pride, and mutual camaraderie.

Janine Teagues, portrayed by the show's creator Quinta Brunson, and Mrs. Barbara Howard, the Black veteran Janine aspires to emulate (portrayed by Sheryl Lee Ralph), operate with selfless levels of reciprocity. Besides being the archetype of an established teacher, Janine learns how to effectively cope with her traumatic upbringing and to accept that sometimes the institution may have flaws beyond her control that must be navigated around. On the other hand, Barbara learns to understand that teaching can incorporate fresh perspectives that may be beneficial, and finds ways to insert idealism to counter her rigid classroom philosophy.

In addition, when Gregory—the aspiring principal turned substitute teacher portrayed by Tyler James Williams—is struggling with a student’s attendance, he and Barbara collaborate to communicate with parents about classroom attendance. Again, mutual respect and dedication are poured out into the beloved children of Abbott.

The essence of these characters’ relationships transcends the surface-level engagement of everyday teacher life, and elevates work relationships to a level of belonging and acceptance. These strong work-family relationships thrive on the connection of the staff which makes them belong to the Abbott community. Moreover, these relationships serve a vital purpose, one which allows the staff to experience a profound connection to the school.

Because effective work relationships can be a significant factor in employees’ dedication to work and higher productivity, it’s crucial to examine the role of these teachers' relationships in boosting satisfaction and performance. These flourishing connections between the staff at Abbott also point to the importance of workplace friendships in overall retention. In all, the strong relationships between the staff correlate with an even greater village-driven mindset that is the catalyst for their work.

Broader problems

It’s worth noting that, in the real world, nearly 55% of educators are currently considering leaving or retiring from the profession sooner than expected. Though the systemic and structural challenges of teaching have been exacerbated due to COVID-19, teacher turnover has been a significant issue in the past. In addition, Title 1 schools like the fictional Abbott Elementary see about 50% higher turnover than others. As a result, when educators leave the classroom prematurely, this can potentially have negative effects such as disruptions in crucial content areas like math and English Language Arts.

This topic is explored earlier in the show with Gregory. After failing to become principal, he became a substitute at Abbott. While afraid to get serious with his temporary commitment and struggling with apathy, with the help of Janine he accepts that the school has more to offer than just an interim placement. She helps him see that the strong relationships formed with his students are a reflection of the trust and love that they’ve developed with him.

In the season finale, all the aforementioned points come full circle for Gregory. He incorporates helpful advice from all the educators at the school and demonstrates the power of effective teaching relationships as a motivating force for serving in an underfunded school.

Reassessing Blackness

The teachers at Abbott are zealous for the well-being of Black students in their city of Philadelphia. This act of embracing their inherent dignity is a profound charism that all educators must aspire to incorporate into their day-to-day routine. To simply work in an underserved community or be part of an agency dedicated to educational equity isn't enough. A prerequisite to truly modeling Christ-like service is seeing the marginalized as deserving of your energy, time, and, most importantly, love.

By embracing the value of their students, the staff at Abbott model the positive embrace of Blackness in an educational setting. The teachers see each student as a fully functional person, capable of learning when given the proper foundation—which is no easy task, given the deficits or dysfunctions present in the Philadelphia school system.

Not once did I ever see a teacher on the show abandon a child. Perhaps this is because the teachers recognize that education is an empowerment tool for progress rather than a meager handout. Indeed, educators holistically dedicated to the well-being of students are a necessity. The educators at Abbott understand the importance of treating children with special value in an education system that is extremely hostile to their academic readiness.

In my experience working in Title I schools—where a large number or percentage of students come from low-income families and marginalized communities—stereotypes and White Supremacist practices are not invisible. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reported that during the 2017-18 school year, Black students made up 28.7% of all students referred to law enforcement and 31.6% of all students arrested at school.

This data demonstrates that we have paid professionals perpetuating racial bias and subjecting Black students to harsher disciplinary actions. However, with the help of dedicated educators—like those seen in “Abbott Elementary”—who value Black children and transformative relationships built on a foundation of trust, we can work to eliminate racial disparities and implement restorative practices that foster healthy social/emotional support.

The charism of being a high-quality educator can have an immeasurable benefit. When a teacher is wholeheartedly dedicated to the well-being of our community, they are a powerful asset. I am thankful that we have a passionate and dedicated model in “Abbott Elementary”. As we are entertained by the fictional display, may we pray for more educators, professionals, paraprofessionals, support staff, substitutes, and administrators that can help schools truly thrive.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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