Abbott Elementary returns with lessons for our own workplaces
Abbott Elementary, ABC’s new sitcom about a public school in Philadelphia, is about a lot of things: our underfunded school system, the love Quinta Brunson, creator, writer and star of the series, has for her hometown of Philadelphia, and how bad seven-year-olds can be. But it’s also a much-needed reminder that in a world of remote work, our workplaces can still be a source of authentic connection, meaning, and purpose.
The 30-minute sitcom follows protagonist Janine Teagues, played by Brunson, a second-grade teacher at a Philadelphia public elementary school. Tonight at 9 p.m., it’s back on ABC after a month-long hiatus. It was a smash hit, with a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and record-breaking ratings at ABC, and it’s been renewed for a second season. Not surprisingly, the series is workplace comedy at its finest. It has a courageous and optimistic protagonist; an out of touch but hilarious boss; and a cast of quirky co-workers who make up a dysfunctional but lovable workplace.
Throughout, the show weaves in conversations about the role of race and class in shaping our early experiences. For AnaLexicis Bridewell, who worked in university education for six years, its representation and celebration of the black experience in education was what first attracted her.
“At its core, it’s gained so much popularity because there’s something human about the show,” adds Bridewell, who now leads diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at Paramount Entertainment as as Director of Leadership and Employee Impact. With “everything going on in the world, including still being in the midst of a pandemic, it gives you some hope that everything will be fine one day.”
Abbott Elementary taps into our desire to have careers that inspire and work that makes sense while reflecting our own work experiences. Janine and the rest of her colleagues at Abbott Elementary have a lot to teach us about navigating multiple generations in the workplace, finding purpose without burning out, and building meaningful relationships at work. Here are some lessons we can apply to our own workplaces:
“I really admire them all. Well, I respect older people.
Sponsorship is essential for new employees
In the first episode, the show introduces Janine as a second-grade teacher eager to learn from older teachers. “I really admire them all. Well, I admire 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 defend her interests and those of her students. In other words, she is looking for a sponsor.
Samantha Ross Saperstein, head of Women on the Move at JPMorgan Chase, defined sponsors as “strong and consistent advocates for others”. In her article for Charter and Time, she adds: “They beat the table for people behind closed doors and protect them when they take risks.”
In season one, we see Barbara and another seasoned teacher, Melissa, played by Lisa Ann Walter, play a mentoring role for Janine and other young teachers.
For new teachers, having older peers as mentors changes what’s possible for them, whether it’s defending them against the principal or taking on new projects at school.
“Let’s do an exercise where we say what we want, no matter how critical.”
Giving good feedback is hard, but we need it to grow
Throughout the season, there is no shortage of examples of what bad comments look like. In the first episode, principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), upset by Janine’s criticism, 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 in saying what you want, no matter how critical”, adding that she personally finds Janine “arrogant, grating and annoying”.
This is not 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 fast, and it’s actionable.” In an interview with Charter, she also recommends that managers end feedback sessions with a question that starts a dialogue: “How does this happen to you?”
In the second episode of the season, Gregory learns how effective this type of feedback can be. Joel, one of his students, is chronically late. Like many new managers who may feel uncomfortable giving feedback, he is unwilling to speak directly to the student’s parent. Instead, he turns to Barbara for help, who tells him to meet her at her nail salon at lunch, where she knows Joel’s mother will be.
After some not-so-subtle promptings from Barbara — “Can I get rhinestones that show I’m not afraid of awkward interactions?” she tells the nail technician — he finally manages to reach Joel’s mom. He is clear with her, explaining that her son is missing significant class time when he is an hour late. “I would hate for him to fall behind and have to pick up the grade,” he says. “I don’t want that, but it depends as much on you as it does on me.” The next day, we see her dropping Joel off early, before more kids show up.
“We care so much that we refuse to burn out.”
Our work can give us meaning and purpose, but it can also wear us down.
Throughout the season, it’s clear that Janine cares deeply for her children, taking on extra work outside of her primary responsibility. In the second episode, Janine’s dogged pursuit to do well with her children motivates her to replace a flickering light bulb in a hallway. “I’m young, spirited, and I know where they put the ladder,” she says. Unfortunately, Janine’s interference has an escalating series of unseen consequences – a power outage, a shortage of air conditioning in the middle of a heat wave, and Janine herself fainting after a day without eating.
After regaining consciousness, she turns to Melissa for advice, asking how she and Barbara keep themselves from caring too much about it. “It’s the opposite,” she replies. “We care so much that we refuse to burn out. If we run out, who’s there for these kids? That’s why you have to 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 workouts can make a difference, according to executive trainer Katia Verresen. “Maybe you get up and take some water,” she said in an interview with Charter. “Maybe you physically move your body and walk because it resets the nervous system.”
“I’m just here for the camaraderie and this delicious breakfast!”
Common moments can be sources of true connection
At this point in the season, it has become clear that teachers enjoy genuine attention and connection in their workplace. At Abbott, much of that bonding happens in the staff room, while they correct homework during free time or share meals together.
Erica Keswin, author of Roadmap of rituals, wrote about the decline of common moments like these in workplaces, leaving workers more alone. Even before the pandemic, the pace of work meant that the majority of workers were eating lunch alone at their desks. As a result, “not only do they feel less connected to each other; we also know that employees who eat together perform better than those who don’t,” she said in an interview with Charter.
The lesson for workplace leaders is to create more spaces and opportunities for employees to come together and share common moments, instead of having employees dine “al-desco” alone at their desks. Sure, it makes us more productive, but that connection is also essential to our well-being. Many of us spend the majority of our waking hours working, and our jobs structure both our schedules and our relationships. And while most don’t recreate the magic at Abbott, we deserve to have workplaces where we can experience true connection with others.