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3 ways Abbott Elementary gets workspace relationships right

Multiple Golden Globe winner ‘Abbott Elementary’ focuses on a group of teachers and their relationships while working in a public school

A scene from Abbott Elementary, with Sheryl Lee Ralph (Barbara) and Chris Perfetti (Jacob)
A scene from Abbott Elementary, with Sheryl Lee Ralph (Barbara) and Chris Perfetti (Jacob)

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Watching Abbott Elementary win the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series this year, felt a little bit like watching your favourite homegrown brand getting recognition on a big stage. Set in a Philadelphia African-American neighbourhood, the show describes an under-resourced public school with teachers trying to make the most with what (little) they have. The show received 3 Golden Globes (Best Comedy Series, Best Television Actress- Musical/Comedy Series for creator Quinta Brunson and Best Supporting Actor-Television Series for Tyler James Williams).

Its wins (and renewal for Season 3) are very close to my heart because I have worked in schools like Abbott Elementary, albeit not in Philadelphia but in Mumbai; and many of the issues faced by Janine (Brunson) and Co. in Abbott were identical to mine. Most recently, the episode ‘Sick Day’ (Season 2 episode 9) brought back memories of constantly being stressed on sick days because what if the substitute teacher couldn’t figure things out or, worse, called you to check something and you slept through it all?

The school I taught in was in a Mumbai suburb; most students came from the neighbouring slums. Each class had about 30-40 students, but it felt like more, especially because there was often a shortage of furniture. Cultural activities and sports were encouraged for the students but there wasn’t really a budget that ensured these took place – not to mention that this involved participation from teachers and often, on weekends and holidays.

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In the midst of such issues, though, I built some wonderful relationships with the other teachers. Maybe it was the stress of the situation that brought us together, or maybe it was the silent understanding that we needed to work together to help the students (and ourselves). Either way, on my second day in the school, they asked me to sit with them during lunch. Very soon, we were sharing tiffin and confidence. We covered for each other when someone was sick or when someone had extra admin work to do. If I needed an additional 10 minutes to cool off (I mean, cry) after a difficult class, someone would look in on my kids. They helped the substitute teacher if I needed a day off, and they helped me fill out forms written in Marathi.

Watching Janine, Gregory (Williams), and Jacob (Chris Perfetti) interact with senior teachers Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) reminded me a little bit of that equation. “We come here, we love our kids, we exchange some delightful repartee. We are good colleagues. And then we leave. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Barbara describes their relationship in Season 1 episode 8, ‘Work Family’. This isn’t enough for Janine, though. She wants to be friends with them.

Workplace relationships fascinate me, especially post-pandemic, as more and more people seem to be working from home and not meeting their colleagues for weeks or even months. A relationship whose basis was that you met every day has had to be rethought in the past few years. What people found is that it’s not so simple to build and maintain these relationships.

Also Read: Memories of a bittersweet family trip to Kerala

Nowadays, complex workspace relationships and how they play out can be understood with one quick Google search. The internet has multitudes of articles on how to improve relationships with colleagues, why it’s important to give honest feedback, and how to separate personal and professional lives, all relevant for readers trying to navigate this space.

As a workplace entertainer, Abbott Elementary addresses many of these concerns and manages to explore the relationships between most of the main characters. The show says you don’t always need to be friends with your colleagues, but you do need to be their support system at work.

Here are three examples of how the show explores this theme.

Barbara as the mentor

All the younger teachers— Janine, Gregory, and Jacob— adopt senior teacher Barbara Howard as a kind of mentor, sometimes even against her wishes. Mrs. Howard has been teaching at Abbott for over 20 years, and she’s seen it all. In the pilot episode itself, her character is established: she’s a teacher who believes that she doesn’t have the power to change much. So she focuses on her classroom. Her kids are disciplined and well-behaved, and she’s great at her job. She’s just not up for going beyond that. Yet, over the two seasons, she’s seen as the go-to person to solve things. Whether it is how to make students calm down or how to speak to a parent about attendance issues, or just being someone to celebrate the last day of school with, she’s adopted all these roles. Mentorship is vital in any workplace, and through Barbara, the show explores passing down knowledge to benefit a larger community.

The Barbara-Melissa relationship

Barbara and Melissa have been colleagues for decades, and they’ve developed a healthy friendship. They have secret traditions like the Annual Christmas Lounge Dinner or getting lunch together at a particular restaurant. They’re up-to-date with family or boyfriend issues, giving each other advice and having each other’s backs. It’s comforting to see a friendship between middle-aged women, which is practical and relatable. In an interview with writer Sophia Soto published in The Nerds of Color, Sheryl Lee Ralph says of her character and their friendship, “We are mature women, living our life, experiencing friendship together and I’m sure we come from two very different parts of town, but when it comes to that school, we are good friends and we have a great understanding of what it takes to keep Abbott Elementary moving forward.”

The Courtney Episode

In season 1 episode 5, one of Melissa’s students, Courtney, is transferred to Janine’s class due to behavioral issues, but Janine struggles to manage her. It takes the both of them to work together to figure out the problem, which was that Courtney wasn’t being challenged enough. They decide to promote her to the next grade, where the work will be at a higher level, and she will be challenged enough or distracted enough to not wreak havoc. It shows that in a workplace, especially if that’s a school or education institution that hopes to positively impact the lives of young children, you must set aside personal differences and work together to help the students. It’s not possible to understand everything yourself—you need to ask for help from past teachers, principals, parents, and other stakeholders.

Mumbai-based Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education and relationships.

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