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The show effectively and realistically portrays major differences between how newer and more experienced teachers approach teacher engagement.

3 things Abbott Elementary gets right about new teacher engagement

The show effectively and realistically portrays major differences between how newer and more experienced teachers approach engagement

Key points:

  • New teachers look at engagement differently–and Abbot Elementary is spot-on in its depictions of new and seasoned educators
  • The show also highlights student engagement and teacher support as critical parts of a new teacher’s journey
  • See related article: 5 strategies for first-year special education teachers

Abbott Elementary has been widely beloved since its conception, and for good reason. Like many current and former educators, I’ve loved watching the sitcom for the smart humor and great characters, but also for how accurately it represents so much of what I experienced during my time as a teacher, academic coach, and principal. 

There has never been a show that so successfully captures the joy of teaching while simultaneously depicting the challenges, heartaches, and relationships that come with it. One really important thing Abbott does well is highlight the major differences between how newer and more experienced teachers approach engagement, and how new teachers grow as they learn new strategies and practice their skills to increase student engagement. 

New teachers’ high expectations of themselves

In a study conducted last year, 96.9 percent of teachers said they used teacher caring and relationships as an engagement tactic often or very often. When I was an instructional coach, the teachers I worked with knew how important it was to build strong relationships with their students. As a result, teachers would strive to go above and beyond to show how much they care about their students. This resulted in spending a lot of time on activities that didn’t always result in student engagement, without realizing both can be done simultaneously. It’s a massive challenge, particularly for busy teachers trying to move the needle academically. 

When I watch Abbott Elementary, one thing that stands out is seeing the less tenured teachers – Gregory, Janine, and Jacob – hold themselves to extremely high standards, but not always knowing the best strategies to effectively engage their students. In the Season 2 episode “Read-A-Thon,” we see this front and center. Jacob wants to create a podcast club. He dedicates a lot of his free time outside of the classroom and demonstrates significant effort to connect with his students through the creation of the new club. 

While this is something his students are interested in, they threaten to leave the club when Jacob’s focus leans primarily towards his own interests. He’s so enthusiastic and excited to participate, he believes that just in creating the club he’s building meaningful relationships and future opportunities for his students. It’s not until his principal points out that the club was based on Jacob’s interests that Jacob realizes his students’ interests need to be the focal point of the club. 

Classroom-wide expectations 

The second thing I think Abbott’s team gets so right about engagement-supportive practices is how Janine, Gregory, and Jacob set not only high expectations for themselves, but for their students. In 2022, 92.4 percent of teachers reported using setting high expectations as an engagement strategy. This plays a large role in how they approach setting high expectations for their students. One size does not fit all. 

In the Season 2 episode “The Principal’s Office,” Gregory learns it’s necessary to use multiple strategies to engage all of the students in his classroom. At the beginning of the episode, we see Gregory sending a student to the principal’s office for shouting in class about his favorite TV character. As a principal, I saw this a lot. New teachers would send students to the principal’s office or take more drastic actions more often than experienced teachers because they had high expectations for their students, but hadn’t yet determined how to differentiate those expectations based on individual relationships or students’ needs. 

From a principal’s perspective, the goal is to support the child, and we see this in a rare moment of strong leadership from Abbott’s principal, Ava. She highlights how the student may feel, while explaining to Gregory he can both hold high expectations for his students and simultaneously differentiate for the students who need additional support (like the one he sent to the office). By the end of the episode, we see Gregory challenge the student by including his students’ favorite character in the lesson as a way to keep him engaged in the lesson. 

Teachers supporting teachers 

Some of my most enduring friendships were made during my time at schools. In order to be successful driving learning outcomes forward, as well as maintaining mental health in the classroom, teachers need other teachers’ support, guidance, and camaraderie. Abbott Elementary displays this almost perfectly, especially when it comes to demonstrating how teachers lean on each other for help engaging their students. 

In the show, one thing that rings true to my experience is a lot of the critical learning for Janine, Gregory, and Jacob takes place outside of formal professional development. It’s also backed up by research: training and professional development was perceived to be the least influential on the most used engagement instructional strategies. These differences were statistically significant. Though in this case, we can’t be totally surprised – they have a principal with little to no understanding of elementary education! Regardless, learning outside of professional development was common in the schools in which I’ve worked. 

As a principal, I saw yearly how intentionally our experienced teachers would support the new or the newest teacher on their grade level teams. Like in Abbott Elementary, this validation, guidance, and coaching often took place in the kitchen, hallway, lunchroom, or casual conversations after school. The teachers who took advantage of relationship building with tenured teachers were the ones who saw the most growth in their ability to engage and educate their students effectively. The growth we see from Janine, Gregory, and Jacob from season to season would not be as profound if it weren’t for Barbara’s and Melissa’s mentorship, support, and tough love along the way. 

Mentorship and growth 

As we laugh our way through the episodes of Abbott Elementary, former educators can’t help but reflect on our own engagement journeys. It’s fun to think about how many new teachers I have had the privilege of seeing grow into excellent educators as they learn hard lessons and get better along the way. As an audience, the show leaves us eager to see how Janine, Jacob, and Gregory continue to grow into the great teachers we all know they are capable of becoming. 

Maybe we’ll even get a flash forward episode of Janine mentoring a new, eager, enthusiastic teacher. We can dream! 

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