Abbott Elementary’s Lessons on Teacher Appreciation

Smiling teacher at chalkboard

This past spring, the sitcom “Abbott Elementary” became a massive, overnight hit. The show depicts fictional teachers who work tirelessly for their students and schools. Not only is the show very entertaining, but it also contains astute observations about teachers’ experiences. Having been an elementary teacher and principal, I relate to many of the characters and what they go through.

Quinta Brunson, the show’s creator and star, drew inspiration from observing the experiences of her mother, an elementary school teacher. Brunson said she wanted to illustrate the “real people who are choosing, most times, to do the most underpaid job in the world,” and the show is her gesture of appreciation and recognition to our nation’s teachers.

“Abbott Elementary” could not have come at a better time. Many teachers feel underappreciated and overworked, particularly around their efforts to support their students and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the first-ever Merrimack College Teacher Survey, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center for Merrimack College, teacher satisfaction is currently very low. Only 46 percent of teachers feel the public treats them as professionals, and 44 percent of teachers say they are fairly or very likely to leave the profession.

Depicting Teachers’ Real-Life Challenges

In light of Teacher Appreciation Week, here are three important realities the show raises that need our attention.

[N]ationwide, teachers spend $1 billion on their own classrooms, essentially subsidizing schools out of their own pockets.

1. Too many teachers work in less-than-ideal conditions.

In an early episode, Janine—the main character and a second-grade teacher played by Brunson—attempts to fix a long-dead light bulb in the hallway. To her skeptical colleagues, she says: “I don’t want to wait until somebody gets to it. You know, our children have needs that deserve to be met. And I’m going to fix this. And nothing is going to get in my way.”

Scores of teachers work in schools amid dismal conditions, and research shows that school facilities affect both students and teachers. COVID-19 exposed many schools’ inadequate ventilation systems, which can affect the health of students, teachers, and staff. And we know that inadequate physical working conditions can lead to teachersjob dissatisfaction and attrition. Facilities improvement is not part of a teacher's job description, and they have more than enough other responsibilities to fill their days.

2. Teacher mentoring is necessary to retain novice teachers.

Though we never see a glimpse of a formal mentoring and induction program, Janine and other new teachers seek out their experienced colleagues and each other to troubleshoot problems, confirm that they’re on the right path, or even for a shoulder to cry on. Novice teachers crave a strong professional community with trained mentors and peers.

Mentoring and induction programs strengthen teacher retention, yet many schools and states lack these programs. The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at AIR works with state and districts to implement high-quality mentoring and induction programs; our toolkit is designed to support these efforts.

3. Teachers need resources to do their jobs well.

Throughout the first season, “Abbott Elementary” teachers are forced to get creative to buy books and rugs for their classrooms. In the pilot episode, Janine tells students as they pull out a textbook, “…there have been three presidents since this one, okay? It’s an old book, so here’s where I taped the others.”

Teachers are resourceful and go above and beyond to make sure students learn. ASCD, a K-12 educator professional development organization, estimated that nationwide, teachers spend $1 billion on their own classrooms, essentially subsidizing schools out of their own pockets. Teachers already feel that they are unfairly paid for the work that they do, carry heavy workloads, and get paid less to do their job than others with similar degree requirements. Shoring up education funding is critical, so teachers spend less of their time being resourceful to fill those gaps and focus on their most important work—instructing students.

If we truly want to thank our nation’s teachers, gestures of appreciation are nice, but not enough. Teachers need better working conditions, strong mentoring and induction programs, and adequate resources. There is no doubt that thanking teachers is important, but it is time to make real change to demonstrate that we value our teachers—which will attract and retain driven and dedicated professionals, like those we see on “Abbott Elementary.”