Abbott Elementary, ABC’s new sitcom about a public school in Philly, is about a lot of things: our underfunded school system, the love Quinta Brunson—creator, writer, and star of the show—has for her hometown of Philadelphia, and how gross seven-year-olds can be. But it’s also a much-needed reminder that amid a world of remote work, our workplaces can still be a source of genuine connection, meaning, and purpose.
The 30-minute sitcom follows protagonist Janine Teagues, played by Brunson, a second-year teacher at a public elementary school in Philadelphia. Tonight at 9pm, it’s back on ABC after a month-long hiatus. It’s been a smash hit, with a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and ratings that have broken records at ABC, and it has been renewed for a second season. It’s not surprising—the show is workplace comedy at its finest. It has a plucky and optimistic protagonist; an out-of-touch but hilarious boss; and a cast of quirky coworkers that make up a dysfunctional but loveable workplace.
All the while, the show weaves in conversations about the role of race and class in shaping our earliest experiences. For AnaLexicis Bridewell, who worked in university education for six years, its portrayal and celebration of the Black experience within education was what first drew her in.
“At its core, it has gained so much traction because there's something human about the show,” adds Bridewell, who now leads diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at Paramount Entertainment as the director of leadership and employee impact. With “everything going on in the world, including still being in the thick of a pandemic, it gives you a little bit of hope that things one day might be okay.”
Abbott Elementary taps into our desire to have careers that inspire and work that feels meaningful while holding a mirror up to our own workplace experiences. Janine and the rest of her Abbott Elementary colleagues have a lot to teach us about navigating multiple generations in the workplace, searching for purpose without burning out, and building meaningful relationships at work. Here are just some lessons we can take to our own workplaces:
“I really look up to them all. Well, I look up to the older ones.”
Sponsorship is essential for new employees
In the first episode, the show introduces Janine as a second-year teacher eager to learn from older teachers. “I really look up to them all. Well, I look up to the older ones,” she says. In particular, she idolizes kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. In Barbara, Janine sees someone who can not only help her grow as a teacher but also advocate on behalf of her and her students. In other words, she’s looking for a sponsor.
Samantha Ross Saperstein, head of Women on the Move at JPMorgan Chase, has defined sponsors as “strong, consistent advocates for others.” In her piece for Charter and Time, she adds, “They pound the table for people behind closed doors and protect them when they take risks.”
Over the course of the first season, we see Barbara and another veteran teacher, Melissa, played by Lisa Ann Walter, step into sponsorship roles for Janine and other young teachers.
For the newer teachers, having the older peers as sponsors changes what is possible for them, whether it’s defending them against the principal or taking on new projects at the school.
“Let’s do an exercise where we say whatever we want, no matter how critical.”
Giving good feedback is hard, but we need it to grow
Throughout the season, there are no shortage of examples of what bad feedback looks like. In the first episode, Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), upset by criticism from Janine, calls the staff to the library for a nightmarish version of a 360 review. She asks Janine’s colleagues and students to do “an exercise where we say whatever we want, no matter how critical,” adding that she personally finds Janine “pushy, squeaky, and annoying.”
This isn’t what a good feedback process looks like. Instead, according to Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president and head of research at Coqual, “it's clear, it's quick, and it's actionable.” In an interview with Charter, she also recommends managers end feedback sessions with a question that starts a dialogue: “How does that land with you?”
In the second episode of the season, Gregory learns how effective this kind of feedback can be. Joel, one of his students, is chronically late. Like many new managers who may feel awkward giving feedback, he is unwilling to talk to the student’s parent directly. Instead, he turns to Barbara for help, who tells him to meet her at her nail salon at lunch, where she knows Joel’s mom will be.
After some not-so-subtle prodding from Barbara—“Can I get some rhinestones that show I’m not afraid of awkward interactions?,” she says to the nail tech—he finally breaks through to Joel’s mother. He is clear with her, explaining that her son is missing important class time when he is an hour late. “I would hate for him to fall behind and have to retake the grade,” he says. “I don’t want that, but that’s as much up to you as it is up to me.” The next day, we see her drop Joel off early, before any other kids have shown up.
“We care so much we refuse to burn out.”
Our work can give us meaning and purpose, but it can also burn us out
Throughout the season, it’s clear that Janine cares deeply about her kids, taking on additional work outside her main responsibility. In the second episode, Janine’s dogged pursuit of doing right by her kids motivates her to replace a flickering lightbulb in a hallway. “I’m young, sprightly, and I know where they keep the ladder,” she says. Unfortunately, Janine’s meddling has an escalating series of unseen consequences—a blackout, an air-conditioning shortage in the middle of a heatwave, and Janine herself passing out after a day of not eating.
After she comes to, she looks to Melissa for advice, asking how she and Barbara stop themselves from caring too much. “It’s the opposite,” she replies. “We care so much we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s there for these kids? That’s why you gotta take care of yourself.”
Janine’s behavior is a classic example of what not to do to avoid burnout—taking on too many projects and forgetting to take breaks. Even small practices can make a difference, according to executive coach Katia Verresen. “Maybe you get up and get some water,” she said in an interview with Charter. “Maybe you physically move your body and walk because that resets the nervous system.”
“I’m just here for the camaraderie and this tasty breakfast!”
Communal moments can be sources for real connection
At this point in the season, it has become clear that the teachers have genuine care and connection at their workplace. At Abbott, much of this bonding happens in the teachers’ lounge, while they grade papers during free periods or share meals together.
Erica Keswin, author of Rituals Roadmap, has written about the decline of communal moments like these in workplaces, making workers more lonely. Even before the pandemic, the pace of work meant the majority of workers took lunch alone at their desks. As a result, “not only do they feel less bonded to each other; we also know that employees who eat together perform better than employees who don’t,” she said during an interview with Charter.
The lesson for workplace leaders is to create more spaces and opportunities for employees to come together and share communal moments, instead of leaving employees to dine “al-desco” alone at their desks. Sure, it makes us more productive, but that connection is also essential to our wellbeing. Many of us spend the majority of our waking hours working, and our jobs structure both our schedules and our relationships. And although most won’t recreate the magic at Abbott, we deserve to have workplaces where we can experience real connection with others.