I have not taught for two years, but I still relive my worst days at work. Every day I think about how I could have done more for my students. Despite my remaining guilt, though, I’m glad I left the classroom. While teaching, my mental health suffered, and I did not like who I was: angry, neurotic, and worn out.
Needless to say, when I saw that workplace comedy Abbott Elementary premiered on ABC last winter, I was fascinated and yet scared. The sitcom series tells the story of a Philadelphia elementary school and its dedicated teachers, and portrays high-need inner-city schools with the accuracy and humor needed when discussing the American education system. However, I also fear that the show – which airs its season finale tonight on ABC – may perpetuate the shame associated with leaving education.
A 2022 poll showed that 55 percent of teachers planned to leave the profession faster than originally planned. However, I am not convinced that many teachers will actually go. Teaching is a profession that is often integrated into one’s identity in such a way that it can feel like sacrificing a part of oneself to leave it. Abbott Elementary uses the same crippling rhetoric that educators often hear in real life and that romanticizes the work of teaching: It’s a “call”. Do it “for the kids.” Today, the shame of going against this “call” still haunts me, as if the world is disappointed that I could not make it work.
But Abbott Elementary, in his honor, also recognizes the importance of a teacher’s well-being. In the series’ pilot, veteran teachers comforted Janine – an idealistic dreamer played by the show’s creator, Quinta Brunson – and confirmed that teachers do not know everything. The show also emphasizes the delicate balance between work and privacy for teachers; if one never finds out, burnout is inevitable. Within the first two minutes of the first episode, a teacher leaves school for unknown reasons.
Although the pandemic does not occur in the first season, you see Abbott Elementary in the context of our new reality pulls in a new heart string and delivers an even stronger beat. The current and last two school years have been completely unique. After leaving education in June 2020, I did not experience much of this new wave of teaching. But when I talk to friends and family members who are teachers, I hear about the worsening student behavior and miscommunication around new protocols. Teachers pick up reasons to leave – and optimistically, sitcoms can even provide validation, despite no references to the pandemic. Even as a former educator, it makes me feel heard and seen.
But the show’s emphasis on teachers’ godly dedication also places a burden on educators. The teachers already have enough on the plates; by showing up and leading classrooms, they advocate for children’s right to a fair education on top of their other roles. Yes, of course, teachers need to be celebrated. But fixing the education system should not just fall on their shoulders.
It is not the only idealized version of the classroom and teachers found in Abbott Elementary. When I watched the episode “Student Transfer”, I was reminded of one of the key reasons I left the program: to compare myself to others. Janine fixes her reviews and compares herself to the other teachers in second grade, reminding me of the days when I measured my test scores with the results of other classrooms and asked why I was frustrated when others seemed energetic. Before I became a teacher, I underestimated the importance of self-esteem needed to lead a classroom. When colleagues told me I was a good teacher, I never believed them; I told myself I was not as good as the others, so that was what I went out to prove. When I watch the show, I see the teacher I wanted to be. By showing what “good” teachers look like, Abbott Elementary makes it even harder for me to feel like I did the right thing by moving on. I forget my valid reasons for leaving; I ask myself, “What if I had stayed and tried harder?”
Abbott Elementary also does a beautiful but unvarnished piece of work highlighting the importance of parent-teacher relationships. In the evening with the school’s open house, Janine is waiting for a parent, who eventually arrives late. When I saw the two meet to find out what is best for the child, I was reminded of the schools’ unique and rewarding environment. But I was also jealous of Janine: It’s easy for me to forget my many positive relationships with parents, but it’s even easier to replay the moments when parents and I did not agree or fully trust each other. Although heartwarming, the episode reinforced my belief that I was a bad teacher by idealizing this difficult and often frustrating part of a teacher’s job. Most educators and parents are cooperative, but not all are. It is essential that such conditions can not be boiled down to a perfect scenario.
I have not yet decided if I will see Abbott Elementary is therapeutic or triggering. The difficulty of revisiting the past hurts – I want to find peace in leaving education. However, I do not think I will find comfort until I know that my students are well.
But Abbott Elementary also reminds me that my impressions of the poor state of the American education system were not all in my head. The creators of the sitcom have created a show that pays homage to everyday superheroes, engages an American audience with an urgent problem and makes us smile – all the while validating teachers and not sneaking away from the harder truths. It’s hard to run a classroom, and even a TV show can not make it look easy.
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