Heartwarming or Heartbreaking: Reflections on Abbott Elementary and Our Underfunded Schools

It took me about eight minutes into the pilot of Abbott Elementary, before I let out a sigh. For those who have not seen it, Abbott Elementary is a “mockumentary” that follows a group of passionate educators, all with vastly different experience levels, coming together to teach at an elementary school in Philadelphia. My sigh was coming from a place of relief—finally, someone had captured the duality of how heartwarming and heartbreaking being a teacher could be. The frustration, the tension, the passion, and the warmth was all there, neatly wrapped in about 22 minutes per episode. Now, Abbott Elementary is being nominated (and winning!) award after award, but to many former and current teachers, it is so much more than that. Personally, the show feels like my chance to explain what I did—to explain why I loved what I did but also to explain why ultimately, I had to leave the teaching field.

Some scenes felt so close to my own experiences, I wondered if the creator and star of the show, Quinta Brunson, had quietly but closely been watching my teaching journey. She had to have been there; she captured my experience too well to have not been with me through the astronomical highs and the gut-wrenching lows. From the anticipation and optimism of the first day, to my first moment of true clarity and understanding after a difficult yet urgent meeting with a parent, to the moments of connection with students. It is clear that despite having never taught, Brunson understood and continues to understand, the sheer joy that comes from being a teacher. But she also captured the disappointment, the feelings of failure, and the never-ending frustration of having to navigate problems that you did not create—all on top of the fact that when you finally get to go home, you live the lifestyle that comes with low pay and low respect. After watching and reflecting, I realized that perhaps my experience as a burnt-out teacher in an underfunded school was not as unique as I thought it was.

Teachers do not take their responsibilities lightly, so why do we, as a society, take their working conditions lightly? Yes, Abbott Elementary gives teachers’ that wonderful feeling of having their personal experiences acknowledged and represented in a way that makes them accessible to others not in the teaching profession. It has those moments where you know even the most cynical educators watching would crack a smile. The show is oozing with humanity and humor. But I can assure you there is nothing funny about the reality it represents—poorly paid and treated educators. With the emotionally demanding nature of teaching coupled with low pay and few resources, it feels like it is only a matter of time before burnout rears its ugly head in the plot and someone on the Abbott Elementary staff resigns. This phenomenon is happening in schools all over the nation. As James Poniewozik stated in a New York Times piece, “We love to feel good about teachers but actually doing good by them is rare enough.” The topic of teacher salaries has generated much attention in the past few days with The American Teacher Act, but this is just one part of the enormously challenging puzzle of the American education system. So, what else might we need to be doing to “do good” by teachers?

The answer to that question and a central theme in Abbott Elementary is funding. Whether we want to admit it or not, the level of funding impacts schools’ ability to safely and smoothly operate—and fictional Abbott Elementary is no exception. Many of the episodes show Janine, the (overly?) optimistic second-grade teacher, using every fiber of her being to advocate for a better learning experience and environment for her students. While it results in some pretty hilarious moments, viewers should recognize that, at times, it is at the cost of her physical safety and mental well-being. Why is the teaching team spending so much time and energy fixing facilities, searching for supplies, and other all-too-real tasks that take them out of their classrooms? When you dig into that question, the answer is a lack of adequate funding. If you’re curious to learn more about school finance and how states or districts spend, the fifth edition of The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems Report was released earlier this month, and it is absolutely worth the read. The findings are striking (to say the least). Each state conveniently has an individual profile to capture what is happening with funding down to the district level. The underinvestment in education significantly shortchanges this country’s potential to provide all students with an excellent and equitable education. What would schools such as Abbott Elementary be like if they were adequately funded? Sure, it would make for a less entertaining Season 3, but better funding for schools is in everyone’s best interest.