Metro Atlanta educators say ‘Abbott Elementary’ hits its marks

Many teachers see themselves in the show’s characters
Melanie Lange gestures as she and other teachers watch a sitcom “Abbott Elementary” at the home of Melanie Lange, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in College Park. Melanie Lange is holding a viewing party for "Abbott Elementary," a sitcom about a Philadelphia school. The popular show is a particular hit with educators, who see themselves and colleagues in the over-the-top antics of the sitcom's characters. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Melanie Lange gestures as she and other teachers watch a sitcom “Abbott Elementary” at the home of Melanie Lange, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in College Park. Melanie Lange is holding a viewing party for "Abbott Elementary," a sitcom about a Philadelphia school. The popular show is a particular hit with educators, who see themselves and colleagues in the over-the-top antics of the sitcom's characters. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

It didn’t take long on a recent Friday night for a group of 10 teachers to pick out who among them resembled the characters on ABC’s popular “Abbott Elementary” sitcom.

At a viewing party of the show in Clayton County, James A. Jackson Elementary School teacher Gerlisa Shipman was unanimously identified as the “Janine” of the group, all can-do attitude despite the challenges before her.

“This one right here is Janine. Always trying to be helpful,” Angela Weekes, a colleague said of Shipman, half with praise and half in awe of her ability to think that true grit can overcome any obstacle.

Jackson second-grade teacher Alvin Glymph was Eddie Gregory, Abbott’s rigid but ambitious principal wanna-be, they agreed. Tanesha Phillips, also a Jackson teacher, was Melissa Schemmenti, the educator who doesn’t bite her tongue. And third-grade Jackson teacher Quajaulon Williams, who is the school’s teacher of the year, is Barbara Howard the educator whom everyone looks up to.

Sitting around a television perched above a fireplace, the teachers howled at each scene, pointing to at one another as the cast members got into various predicaments. Host Melanie Lange, a media specialist at the school, paused the show several times to allow the laughter to die down after situations on the screen hit close to home.

Melanie Lange (foreground), teacher at James A. Jackson Elementary School, reacts as she and other teachers watch a sitcom “Abbott Elementary” at the home of Melanie Lange, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in College Park. Melanie Lange is holding a viewing party for "Abbott Elementary," a sitcom about a Philadelphia school. The popular show is a particular hit with educators, who see themselves and colleagues in the over-the-top antics of the sitcom's characters. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

“Janine’s optimism, that is definitely me,” Shipman said of the show’s protagonist, Janine Teagues, a second-year teacher whose cheery but sometimes naive outlook is often the center of the sitcom’s hijinks. “I am willing to try things and I want my kids to have the best in the classroom.”

Teachers, principals and school staff across metro Atlanta say that of the many shows that have sought to bring the classroom experience to the small screen, “Abbott Elementary” has done it best. It gets the overexuberance of being a new teacher, the burnout of some veterans, the frustration about the lack of resources and the personality mishmash that make up most school staffs.

“It makes you feel seen,” Merinda Baker, a former Fulton County Schools teacher, said of the show. “It provides that comic relief in situations where you had to laugh to keep from crying.”

Visibility matters

Set in Philadelphia, the show centers on the staff of a public school struggling with tight budgets, absent parents and a mostly neglectful principal as they are being followed by a documentary crew. Much like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” before it, the fun is watching the absurdities of the characters daily lives and their direct-to-camera reactions.

“The mockumentary style is just perfect because they are able to give that look that we wish we could when they break the fourth wall,” said Laura Meyers, who teaches teachers as program coordinator for Georgia State University’s Master’s of Arts in Creative & Innovate Education program, referencing talking directly to the camera. “They give the look to the camera that we might give to a co-teacher.”

Aaron Everett, a coach and veteran educator in Marietta City Schools, said the show hits all the right notes.

“It touches so many real-life school situations, whether it’s a shortage of substitute teachers or a school being underfunded or even schools competing for the highest test scores,” he said. “If you’ve taught for a while there is a something relatable for you about this show.”

“Abbott” comes at a time when schools are under tremendous pressures. Funding issues that have always plagued schools have been joined by concerns over school safety because of mass shootings, interference from politicians and national organizations over what is taught in classes and debates about who uses what bathroom.

For laypeople, understanding how schools function after the bell rings is instructive, said Delores Gardner Thompson, an Atlanta-based writer and former NASA engineer. Thompson has written an “Abbott” speculative script about what happens when an astronaut visits the school.

“The show reminds me that I’d love to be a fly on the wall in a teachers’ breakroom,” she said. “I used to wonder what it was like in the teachers’ breakroom. Now I realize it’s just as well that I didn’t know.”

Teachers at James A. Jackson Elementary School (from left) Alvin Glymph, Gerlisa Shipman, Quajaulon Williams and Melanie Lange, react as they watch the sitcom “Abbott Elementary” at the home of Melanie Lange, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in College Park. Melanie Lange is holding a viewing party for "Abbott Elementary," a sitcom about a Philadelphia school. The popular show is a particular hit with educators, who see themselves and colleagues in the over-the-top antics of the sitcom's characters. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

And while it gets many issues right, the show is not perfect, educators said. They don’t have as much time to spend in the teacher’s lounge as they do on the show and some characters are missing, such as the school nurse, the gym teacher, paraprofessionals and the teacher who will only take the class with the brightest students because of the prestige that accompanies the position.

And most teachers do not call each by their first names, they said.

“You can go for years without knowing people’s first names,” Teana Shelton, a six-year literacy coach at Jackson Elementary, said at the viewing party.

Said Phillips, a fourth-grade teacher, “The kids always ask, ‘What’s your first name.’ I say Mrs.”

Janine the overachiever

The show has won numerous awards in its two seasons. Quinta Brunson, the show’s mastermind and producer, stars as Janine.

There appear to be many Janines in metro Atlanta’s schools.

Baker, who worked for Fulton Schools for six years before moving recently to mobile education firm STEAM Truck, said she started out as Janine in her first year but quickly took on Melissa’s characteristics when she realized her ambitions to save the world were no match for district bureaucracy, budget shortfalls and digging into her own pockets to help students.

“First year, Merinda was definitely Janine, all day, every day,” she said. “I was the overachiever, who wanted to fix it all. But I also see how I shifted to being Melissa in year two or three because I quickly began to burn out.”

Greg Leaphart, facilities director for the Utopian Academy for the Arts Network, said most teachers are Janines at the beginning of their careers and he is no exception. And like others, he took on the characteristics of others on the show as he went from newbie to veteran.

What sets “Abbott” apart, he said, is its willingness to paint a realistic portrait of teachers, including their frailties and insecurities.

“Some shows won’t let the main character fail,” said Leaphart, who is also a former Atlanta Public Schools teacher. “This show allows the main character to fail. But she gets better from it. And that is what school is all about.”

Peek behind the curtain

Sherri Greene, principal of Dutchtown Elementary School in Henry County, said despite its flaws, she thinks the show is healthy for parents and for school staff. Parents get a peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage is made and teachers can see their experiences play out in front of a national audience.

“It gives me a chance to laugh at it because I can relate to it,” said Greene, who added that everyone of the show’s characters exist on her staff of around 100. “Teachers can see that they are not alone in this crazy job and that there are lessons everyone can learn.”

And she is not anything like the show’s principal, Ava Coleman, nor does she know others who resemble what many consider the show’s most over-the-top, but extremely popular character.

Coleman constantly flirts with underling Gregory, uses her office for online businesses and blackmailed the school board chairman to get her job, among many offenses.

But despite her shortcomings, even Coleman reflects the challenges schools face when addressing student needs, metro schools leaders said. In one episode, she teaches a student how to make money by taking a cut of candy bars sales by doubling the price.

After her deception is called out, she says that though her methods were wrong she was trying to teach survival skills to a student whose family could not afford to replace the clothing he was outgrowing.

It hit home with teachers because it’s the kind of real-world problems they face every day, though their solutions are above board, the educators said.

“She’s fun,” Greene said of the principal character. “Some of the things that she says and some of the things she will do are things some might think and never do. I don’t mean the inappropriate things. But there is some realistic humor in what she says.”

Modern leadership

Bryan Willis Reese, a founding principal at Clayton County’s Utopian Academy for the Arts, said traditionally Barbara Howard, the steadfast veteran, would be the school’s principal. But today’s schools demand more than experience. They need a combination of politician, marketer, community organizer and business executive to navigate the complexities of running a school.

“That’s all expected of the school’s top leader in an addition to being an effective educator,” he said.

Teachers (from left) Myielle Kimbrough-Meyer, Alvin Glymph and Melanie Lange react as they watch a sitcom “Abbott Elementary” at the home of Melanie Lange, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in College Park. Melanie Lange is holding a viewing party for "Abbott Elementary," a sitcom about a Philadelphia school. The popular show is a particular hit with educators, who see themselves and colleagues in the over-the-top antics of the sitcom's characters. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

GSU’s Meyers said part of what makes an effective educator is being willing to take some risks and figuring things out through trial and error. She has guided many Janines in her career and she doesn’t try to tamper with their enthusiasm, even though she knows the realities they may face.

“I would much rather Janine have faith in her students to be able to rise to the occasion and be challenged,” she said.

Adrian Douglas agreed. Douglas, a metro Atlanta teacher who is also a doctoral student in educational policy studies at GSU, said teachers always reflect on what went well and what didn’t in anything they try, whether it was a failure or a triumph. So in that way, it unites all the different characters, despite their different personalities or idiosyncrasies.

But he has seen his own growth over the seven years he’s been teaching, growing from a Janine to a Barbara. He said when he first started, he was one of the first teachers in the building and the last one to go home.

“It took some Barbara-style teachers to say, ‘You need to pack your bags and get out of this school,’” he said. “You’ve done enough. Go home.”

About the Author