How ‘Abbott Elementary’ Flips the Script on Popular Images of Urban Public Schools (Guest Blog)

Quinta Brunson’s diverse onscreen faculty “reflects an academic reality I wish I had experienced growing up,” anthropologist Philip McKenzie writes

abbott elementary

Since its premiere in December, the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” has seen its audience skyrocket as the comedy set in a Philadelphia public elementary school has become a breakout hit of the new season. The brainchild of creator/actress/producer Quinta Brunson, who stars as an overly earnest teacher named Janine Teagues, can attribute its success to solid storytelling and a cast of savvy veterans like Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams and Lisa Ann Walter. Looking deeper, though, “Abbott Elementary” also marks a significant cultural moment in onscreen representation and why it matters.

Growing up in New York City in the 1980s, I did not have one Black male teacher in elementary or junior high school. I was a 15-year-old junior at Brooklyn Technical High School when I encountered my first Black male teacher. A fond shout-out to Mr. Brereton for Building Construction! After Mr. Brereton, I would have to wait until I was a freshman at Howard University to be taught by a Black male again. To have academic instruction and guidance administered by someone who looks like you is all too rare for Black elementary students. Stanford’s Graduate School of Education estimates that only 2% of America’s teachers are Black men.

But “Abbott Elementary” prominently features actor Tyler James Williams, who is Black, as a relatively new substitute teacher. Of course, the show’s heartbeat is star Quinta Brunson, but her inclusion of Williams’ character is brilliant. It is a hallmark of the type of cultural fluidity necessary to appeal to audiences in a context that resonates. I am far removed from grade school, and seeing Williams’ character week after week reflects an academic reality I wish I had experienced growing up.

TV shows set in schools are not uncharted territory. From “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the ’70s to “Saved by the Bell” in the ’80s and ’90s to the more recent “Glee,” the growing pains of students have been fertile ground for television. Those shows and most programming focus on high school students and their stories. “Abbott Elementary” flips this familiar script by setting the show in an elementary school environment, and of course, and by making the teachers the show’s stars. Of course, the cute kids are in the background, but the attention is squarely on the educators and how they navigate the bureaucracy and pressure of the job.

Schools and school boards have become battlegrounds. Conservatives have channeled their unfounded hysteria over critical race theory and mask mandates into a new culture war. Pushback against the most minimal of diversity initiatives after the murder of George Floyd has become the source of white parental grievance aimed at schools. Under the guise of freedom and parental rights, teachers are under siege merely for doing their jobs. Mainstream media distorts this as the actions of concerned parents.

A more critical examination reveals that the concerns of Black and brown parents are excluded from the discourse. Articles and think pieces that reference “parents” are often merely using shorthand for the circumstances of white parents. “Abbott Elementary” is not a political show, but by showing the children of Black and brown parents not embroiled in the culture wars, Brunson and her team are performing a political act. Some communities want the best education for their children, and they are rarely seen or heard from. “Abbott Elementary” centers their stories rather than those fighting against justice and safety.

While Abbott Elementary is a city public school, the show does not allow itself to be trapped by the conventional thinking of what a “city school” is or reduce the setting to an inner-city stereotype of the liberal imagination. Abbot and Philadelphia are depicted as a complex urban environment. While they face challenges, the staff is more than capable and willing to meet them. Just as the ratings are thriving, so is the fictional school — with a bit of grit and imagination. The show ably mines the problems that inevitably surface when confronted by the ongoing neoliberal project that defunds education at the expense of everything else.

“Abbott Elementary,” in taking the culture of education seriously, operates quietly — almost invisibly. Its power lies in the fact that it knows the world it inhabits so authentically it can shape perceptions in a way that feels both familiar and fresh. When you empower creators like Quinta Brunson, you open your aperture to a broader, more vibrant narrative. “Abbott Elementary” has just begun, but it is already succeeding on multiple levels. While the laughs are on full display every week, the show’s significance is still unfolding and taking viewers on a far more meaningful ride.