Five years. I bet “Abbott Elementary” character Janine Teagues will not stay in the teaching profession that long.
I am an educator in West Philadelphia, blocks away from the fictional school in the TV show “Abbott Elementary.”
The mockumentary sitcom follows second grade teacher Janine Teagues, portrayed by the actress and show creator Quinta Brunson, as she navigates the intricacies of the large urban school district. Unless she defies the odds, the show’s protagonist won’t make it another three years.
Teacher turnover is concentrated in 25 percent of public schools, most notably urban schools like Abbott with a high concentration of minority students.
A more complete look at the increasing teacher attrition rate reveals entrenched policies and problems that evade the show’s plotlines but characterize real Philadelphia classrooms.
Teacher attrition is the culmination of bad policymaking and a public lack of awareness that, in combination, create the apartheid of education and foster professional burnout.
For years, Philadelphia has financially struggled to keep up with its peer districts. This was highlighted by the recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Case that found inequitable funding across the Keystone State to be unconstitutional. Philadelphia schools are not missing an occasional classroom reading rug (“Abbott Elementary” season 1, episode 3); they are missing environmentally safe classrooms and safe working conditions.
Every day, at a high school in North Philadelphia, I used to hold my breath as white asbestos dust hovered on the exposed pipe insulation above the toilet. The water contained lead.
Forget Abbott’s functional library where students had access to books (season 2, episode 6); in a real Philadelphia school building where I taught, the temperature soared so high that countless students and staff were taken to the hospital on stretchers after fainting. Twice, I had a student fall unconscious in the middle of a lesson.
In the day and age of public consciousness of environmental racism, I find it unconscionable that “Abbott Elementary” overlooks the magnitude of this inequity. How are teachers supposed to deal with emotional exhaustion when they, along with students, can’t regulate their physical temperature?
Contrary to the work protection signage in the Abbott Elementary faculty lounge, Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections aren’t available to teachers and other select public sector employees in Pennsylvania.
Teachers bear the emotional burden of their surroundings, witnesses to the trauma and heartbreak embedded in the buzzword “trauma-informed pedagogy.”
Last year, I sat down to help a student group. As we analyzed rhetoric, a side conversation emerged about educational experiences. Every single student at the table had witnessed a stabbing in elementary school that was critical enough to lead to an arrest. Every single one.
My first classroom in a North Philadelphia high school overlooked the parking lot. During my few preparatory minutes, I would watch a city ambulance travel back and forth between the school and the local children’s hospital. Often, student violence was the cause.
Unless she defies the odds, the show’s protagonist [Janine Teagues] won’t make it another three years.
Weekly, hundreds of students would gather to view or participate in fights, with many using their phones to capture the conflict for social media. The worst and most violent incidents occurred when a student was “jumped” (assaulted without foreknowledge).
In one such incident in a colleague’s room, a young lady with glasses was attacked from behind. She was held by the hair as her face was repeatedly bashed onto the edge of a desk. Blood poured across the classroom floor.
I don’t fear injury myself, though many co-workers have been physically assaulted. But I do fear not being able to protect my students in and out of school. Earlier this year, 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde was walking to the locker room after a junior varsity football scrimmage at nearby Roxborough High School when he was shot by five students who were in pursuit of another student.
Nicolas’s mother, Meredith Elizalde, also a district educator, said, “He’s not number 23 of dead juveniles in this city. He’s Nick, my son.”
Ms. Elizalde has also lost students to gun violence.
As educators, we all have stories that we carry home to our partners, families and therapists. We are witnesses to trauma, violence and helplessness. (My husband listens to my classroom tales with raised eyebrows, and for that reason, I keep some stories to myself.)
For years, I’ve been unable to watch the local news, afraid that I would recognize a face, a beloved student. I am not the only one. One colleague lost a student for every year she taught.
Not too long ago, a parent snuck up to the school’s second floor to verbally threaten me during class over her daughter’s failing grade. No one saw her or her husband ascend the stairwell and cross two halls. I lunged to pick up the landline phone that ordinarily connects staff members with the front office.
Unfortunately, the school was trying to save money by using the app Slack to communicate. I did not have the time to text out “there are trespassers in my classroom” (of course, emojis would not do) so I screamed down the hall like a madwoman.
While the district has rolled out mental health initiatives for staff, little has changed organizationally or structurally to support the welfare of our workforce. In the last year, I have seen countless young educators leave the profession without looking back. I cannot help but wonder, if Janine Teagues faced the same working conditions and loss, would she leave, too?
Although I am not like Janine — I am more like the character Barbara, with impeccable classroom management, very high expectations and strong rapport with students — I was the perfect candidate for burnout. Emerging research shows that burnout is more likely to affect individuals who deeply care about their work.
For years, I faced those environmental factors and triggering events. I spent late afternoons lap swimming and running to keep at bay the feelings of exhaustion and cynicism characteristic of burnout.
When I started having panic attacks, sobbing in the bathroom stall between periods with my heart racing a million miles an hour, I had a large support network to assist me in accessing emergency counseling.
Will I make it to retirement? I don’t know.
“Abbott Elementary” is popular because it is palatable. It is progressive enough to appeal to a 2023 audience, but misrepresents systemic issues that have characterized school communities and led to burnout for decades.
My concern is that the sitcom hides the deeper, messier issues that contribute to teacher burnout. If these are largely veiled from the public, nothing will change.
Lydia Kulina-Washburn teaches English Language Arts in the School District of Philadelphia.
This story about “Abbott Elementary” was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.