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How ‘Abbott Elementary’ is making America’s educators feel seen

“I think a lot of my teacher friends and I are talking about this show, it definitely gives us a common ground,” one teacher said about ABC’s new sitcom.
Image: Quinta Brunson in a scene from "Abbott Elementary."
Quinta Brunson in a scene from "Abbott Elementary."Gilles Mingasson / ABC

Meridith Cooper considers herself more of a Janine. Her mom, Marnie, though, is more of a Barbara.

The two, who are both teachers, said they text every week about ABC's “Abbott Elementary," a mockumentary series that follows the lives of educators at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia. The freshman sitcom, which aired its premiere in December, was created by Quinta Brunson, 32, who also stars as second-grade teacher Janine Teagues.

Cooper's mom has been teaching for more than 20 years, hence the resemblance to the older, wiser character of Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. Cooper, like Janine, is newer to teaching — she’s student-teaching in a seventh grade class in the Austin, Texas, area. But Cooper and her mom both learn from each other. She helps her mom with the latest technology, and soaks in all the wisdom her mom has to share about the profession they both are passionate about.

The sitcom "showcases all the effort that teachers put in," Cooper said, when asked why she and her mom love it so much. "It’s not something you can just go in and wing it. It takes a lot of energy and thoughtfulness from every teacher."

It was important for Brunson, who rose to fame with her online videos, that the show feel authentic to viewers like Cooper.

Brunson's mom was also a teacher, and the show itself is named after Brunson’s sixth grade teacher. The writers’ room is made up of people who, like her, also know educators. Some are even educators turned writers.

“At the end of the day, it’s a comedy,” Brunson said of her show. “But, I like a lot of heart in TV ... and the heart of the show is the messaging of, ‘Look at what these people do every day.’”

About a year before her mom retired from teaching, Brunson went to visit her at her school. It was the night of a parent-teacher conference, which meant it would likely run late, so she wanted to make sure her mom got home safely. They waited for hours and "not a soul" showed up, she said. Finally, around 8 p.m., one parent walked in.

[The show] is making people laugh, but also about making them think a little bit more about what teachers have done for people.”

- Quinta Brunson, creator and star of 'Abbott Elementary'

"I was so mad," she said. "The school day had wrapped early, so my mom had been there since 12 waiting for people." But, she said, her mom was surprisingly not upset at all.

"She sat down there and had that conference with that parent. I was overhearing their conversation, watching my mom do her job beautifully, flawlessly, with such care," Brunson said. "And I was like, 'Man, this beautiful.'"

That moment was among the many that helped spark the idea for "Abbott Elementary," which has received overwhelmingly positive reviews since its pilot aired. Though the show is a comedy, she also wants viewers to feel like they are inside an underfunded public school, where the teachers — who, yes, make funny quips as they navigate their day-to-day lives as educators — go above and beyond for their students. Even though they get paid low salaries, and have few resources at hand. All because they love it.

It’s about “making people laugh, but also about making them think a little bit more about what teachers have done for people," Brunson said.

So far, the show's message has resonated with many educators, some of whom have commented on its relatability in posts on social media.

Kenneth Avery, Jr., who is getting a doctorate in Africology & African American Studies at Temple University, live tweets about new episodes every week.

“I think a lot of my teacher friends and I are talking about this show, it definitely gives us a common ground, a space to come together and talk about these issues,” said Avery, who taught high school English before entering the Temple program. “And not in just negative ways, we also talk about solutions and what we can do to make education better.”

He especially appreciates the camaraderie that the teaching staff has on the show. "I really like the way that the teachers are a community," he said, noting that as teachers, "you do become a family, you do look out for one another, and you do hold one another accountable."

Avery also said the show does a good job of showing what teachers really do (spoiler: it's a lot).

"People don’t see that a lot of times teachers do become more than teachers," he said. "They become parents. They become mentors. They become therapists. They become everything beyond what their job title says. I think that’s super important to show that because I think a lot of times teachers take on responsibilities that you haven’t been trained for nor are you paid for. This is truly a public service field."

Elayne Borenstein, who has been teaching for 26 years, said there are a lot of elements of the show that are accurate. But not everything is realistic, as expected with any show that's not a docuseries.

"There are some things that are realistic but some things that are really goofy and silly," Borenstein, who teaches elementary school in Santa Monica, California, told NBC News.

There are some things that are a realistic but some things that are really goofy and silly."

-Elayne Borenstein , Elementary school teacher, on 'Abbott Elementary' show

Her favorite storyline in the show so far is one that involved the teachers trying to get items from their wish lists donated. In the episode, Janine does a challenge on TikTok to try and go viral and get all her items.

"The thing with the younger teachers using social media was hilarious to me because I see that all the time," she said.

Another element of the show that she described as "very accurate" is the relationship between the older teachers and their younger colleagues. She said she has a younger colleague she leans on when it comes to technology.

So what's exaggerated on the show? Well, teachers would never be able to get their nails done during recess, as viewers see Barbara do in one episode, Borenstein noted.

"We can’t go anywhere at recess, that’s ridiculous," she said. "It’s so fast, and you have so many things to do."

Also, Principal Ava (played by Janelle James) is not the norm, according to Borenstein.

"They make her out to be like a Michael Scott character from 'The Office,'" she said. "She's hilarious, but ... our school principal is very responsible and hardworking."

Brunson said she's happy people are responding well to the show's message.

“We’re not showing on our show that they can do everything ... We’re saying give them more," she said of teachers. "I wanted people to feel like they were at Abbott Elementary so they could feel like, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be this way.’”

The show has also made efforts to help educators. Scholastic tweeted earlier this month that it partnered with the ABC series to donate books to teachers in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

The show also partnered with Scholastic for what they called the "Abbott Elementary Traveling Teacher’s Lounge," where a school bus drove around cities across the United States and gave teachers free school supplies.

Without teachers, Brunson noted, most people wouldn't be where they are.

"Your life doesn’t even start without a teacher," she said. "They teach you how to read ... They should show up and have absolutely everything they need."