Philadelphia Teachers Connect to the Absurd Truths in ‘Abbott Elementary’

Unfortunately, Ava Coleman is a frighteningly believable public school principal
Philadelphia Teachers Connect to the Absurd Truths in ‘Abbott Elementary’

It’s not at all surprising that the public school workplace comedy Abbott Elementary appeals to the real-life teachers of Philadelphia’s schools — it’s appalling, however, that they think Abbott isn’t absurd enough.

On Friday, NPR’s All Things Considered released their roundtable discussion with a group of Pennsylvania teachers who were asked to opine on the authenticity of Quinta Brunson’s astonishingly awarded sitcom. The watch party yielded a near-unanimous consensus: Abbott doesn’t only capture the struggle and strangeness of teaching the children of one of metropolitan America’s most under-resourced districts, it also validates the efforts of the real-life educators who deal with crumbling school infrastructure, ignorant, out-of-touch administrators and any number of bathroom-related catastrophes on a daily basis.

Though Abbott Elementary’s antics have sometimes been criticized as over-the-top, inaccurate representations of life in a public school, Philadelphia’s Nicole Wyglendowski disagrees. “If anything, I feel like it’s not exaggerated,” she said, the words of a woman who has dealt with too many carpet-pissers in her time.

Wyglendowski found the focus on the minutiae of an educator’s experience to be a refreshing representation, saying, “I find it cathartic. … I can’t believe they’re actually talking about this on TV, and I have to laugh because if you don’t laugh you will cry.” 

“It shows the crazy stuff you don’t think about when you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll be a teacher someday,’” Wyglendowski explained. She specifically connected with the central conflict of the show’s pilot episode, wherein the idealistic and upbeat Janine, played by Brunson, tries to replace a classroom rug that’s been urinated upon through bureaucratic channels, only to be foiled at every step by the incompetence and lack of concern of her superiors.

In the episode, Janelle James’ character, principal Ava Coleman, reacts to Janine’s problem by requesting financial assistance from the district, only to spend the money on a new sign for the front of the school that has her own face on it. “Watching the show and trying to figure out sometimes why you would possibly do what (Ava) does I think reflects sometimes on what teachers feel with administration,” teacher Maura McDaid said. “It’s like why would you do that? We don’t understand, and the communication isn’t always great, so it’s hard to say you’ve got our best interests (in mind).”

McDaid recalled her own struggles with administration failing to address pressing issues, as she told the story of how a broken knob on her classroom’s door went unfixed for months, leading to her getting locked into her own classroom — twice. “Once my class got locked in it with me,” she said.

The teachers also admired the show’s commitment to presenting the positive side of the education experience, despite the lack of institutional support. The teachers in Abbott Elementary go the extra mile to learn about their students’ individual needs, involving the families of struggling students and solving issues with effort and understanding. “I think the show reflects that teachers really do talk to parents and try to learn about the kids they’re working with,” McDaid said.

Though Wyglendowski posited that perhaps the show didn’t go far enough in portraying the struggles of impoverished school districts, not all of the teachers agreed with that assessment. “I don’t want the drama,” Sam Crittenden said. “I could go to work for that.”

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