'Abbott Elementary' writers on underfunded schools and teacher retention : It's Been a Minute Brittany Luse watches a lot of TV, but there's one show she's always caught up on — Abbott Elementary. This workplace comedy follows a group of teachers at a Philadelphia public elementary school. The show is sweet and roaringly funny, but it also touches on national issues such as underfunding and teacher retention.

Currently in its second season, the writers room is led by the great Quinta Brunson. Today, Brittany is joined by two of her talented writers, Brittani Nichols and Joya McCrory. They talk about creating a world that feels both authentic and funny to American teachers.

'Abbott Elementary' gets teachers

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You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm your host, Brittany Luse. I rotate a lot of different TV series for both work and pleasure. But if there's one show I'm always caught up on, it's "Abbott Elementary."


QUINTA BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) I'm Janine Teagues. I've been teaching second grade here at Abbott Elementary for a year now. As a product of the Philadelphia school system, I'm proud to say I survived and now teach here today.

LUSE: It's a workplace comedy that follows a group of teachers at a Philadelphia public school. It's roaringly funny, sweet, and I think it's fair to say that "Abbott Elementary" has captured America's heart. The show also touches on real issues, like underfunding and teacher retention, all through the lens of humor. So today, I've invited two amazing writers on the "Abbott" team - Brittani Nichols and Joya McCrory.

What's your favorite line you've written so far on the show? And, Brittani, we'll start with you.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: I think it's maybe the Tariq...


ZACK FOX: (As Tariq) You know I'm a feminist. That's why I let you pay for all my stuff. And...

BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) Yeah, and I appreciate that.

LUSE: Oh, that line is so perfect. It illustrates everything about his nonsensical way of thinking - nonsensical but almost well-intentioned.

NICHOLS: Oh, that's exactly it. It's - my heart is in the right place; I'm just a real journeyman in my own mind.


LUSE: Joya, what about you?

JOYA MCCRORY: I think I'm going to go with Ava...


JANELLE JAMES: (As Ava Coleman) Who gave you permission to put this on my wall? Is this Comic Sans?

MCCRORY: ...Just because I'm on a vendetta to get people to stop using Comic Sans.

LUSE: Today, we hear from these talented writers and learn how they went about creating a world that feels both authentic and funny to teachers across the country.


LUSE: One of the themes the show touches on is underfunding in public schools.


BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) All right, guys. So there have been three presidents since this one, OK? It's a old book. So here's where I taped in the others.

LUSE: Could you tell me how you approached touching on this topic with care and also through humor?

MCCRORY: I went to Detroit Public High School, so it's something that we dealt with in real life. And I think a lot of people in the writers' room also have come from similar backgrounds. So yeah, I think even just pulling from our day-to-day experiences when we were young, they still relate today, sadly.

LUSE: Brittani, what about you?

NICHOLS: Yeah, it's, you know, an experience that most people have going to school. That's the kind of school that I went to. I went to a high school that was, you know, 94% Black and underfunded. We had to put a ballot measure to try to get funding so that we could just have a normal school experience. Unfortunately, race isn't the only indicator when it comes to funding for schools 'cause just overall, the entire system is not performing the way that it's supposed to be.

LUSE: It's interesting you bring up the fact that a lot of people in the writers' room have the same experience. It feels like you all's experience as being the children in that situation and seeing people trying to do their best comes through in the depiction of the teachers in a way.

NICHOLS: Yeah. I mean, personally, my beef was never with the teachers. It never felt like the teachers were the people that were throwing us under the bus. And I think the same thing happens on the show, where the teachers try to guard us from the realities of what we're facing. They were never doing anything to let us know, hey, you're having an experience that is different than what a lot of other people get to have. It was an adult problem that they wanted to keep from being put on our shoulders. I think Barbara takes that to heart, that she doesn't want her kids, especially because they're so young, to grow up with, you know, sort of a chip on their shoulder already.

LUSE: I wonder - what other source materials did you all draw from to be able to approach writing about these topics through the format of a sitcom?

MCCRORY: I have Google Alerts for the Philly school system. I just keep an eye to the news more so than Twitter or social media. But yeah, we just combine all of our resources to kind of come up with fresh takes on things.

NICHOLS: One of the articles that I read during the first season was this ProPublica article called "How Teach For America Evolved Into An Arm Of The Charter School Movement." And that, I think, was part of the seeds for sort of where season two has gone. We also talk to teachers and ask them a lot of very specific questions. And also, there's so much absurd stuff that happens in schools that we sort of can just take the story where we want to take the story, and a teacher somewhere is going to be like, yep, that happened to me.

LUSE: (Laughter).

NICHOLS: I mean, my stepmom is a teacher. And, you know, we didn't talk about any of the stories, but she'll still connect after an episode and be like, yeah, I remember - the year was 1992...


NICHOLS: ...And have, like, some very specific story about something that was in the episode.

LUSE: What's the most surprising thing that you've learned from a teacher or expert that's informed how you approach the show?

NICHOLS: I think probably their differing optimism, I guess. You know, I think there are some people who are taking it day by day and just - like, every day that I show up to my job is a success for the system. And, you know, there are other people who are involved who are talking about things like community schools. And their optimism is such that they think that there is a way to turn things around.

MCCRORY: I think learning about the existence of the rubber room, which is where...

LUSE: What is that?

MCCRORY: ...(Laughter) Which is - and correct me if I'm getting this all wrong, Brittani Nichols (laughter) - but it's where the teachers who've been in trouble go to kind of ride it out until they're allowed to go back to their classrooms. So it's kind of like...


MCCRORY: ...Teacher jail.

LUSE: I don't - how does that work?

NICHOLS: Well, it's essentially because they have union protections...

LUSE: Right. Right, right, right.

NICHOLS: ...So they can't just straight up be fired a lot of the time if they have some disciplinary issue that's going on. So they just separate them away from children and have them collect their little checks in the safety of a secluded area until things get worked out and they, you know, can return to the classroom or go be transferred to a different school or whatever process it is that they're undergoing, like, completes.

LUSE: Is anybody going to the rubber room? Now I'm sitting here like, is Ava going to the rubber room (laughter)?


JAMES: (As Ava Coleman) Thank God for the school district 'cause they gave us $3,000, and I had to spend all of it.

LUSE: We'll have to see.


LUSE: Coming up - Brittani, Joya and I discuss how "Abbott Elementary" portrays intergenerational workplace dynamics like no other show. Stick around.


LUSE: Another thing that comes up a lot is the dynamics of having both younger teachers and older teachers in a workplace where retention is low and even just seeing the differing ways younger teachers and the older teachers react to the environment of Abbott or the way that the Philadelphia public school system works. Joya, what unique opportunities for comedy lie in an intergenerational workplace?

MCCRORY: Even though Barbara's been at Abbott for so long and has been teaching for so long, I think the comedy comes in when we get to see how she deals with the newer things in education.


SHERYL LEE RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) Well, I for one prefer the tried-and-true methods over whatever the latest doohickey is. I mean, I have yet to see the program that can do what I do - teaching.

MCCRORY: How she handles pop culture things - everyone loved that cold open, with her mistaking the white actors and Black names.

LUSE: (Laughter) Yeah.


RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) I'm going straight home - put on a little Millie Bobby Brown.

LISA ANN WALTER: (As Melissa Schemmenti) Bobby Brown.

RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) No one's done more for Black actors than Tommy Lee Jones.

JAMES: (As Ava Coleman) James Earl Jones.

BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) And we just let her keep thinking that.

MCCRORY: I think that's where the fun is. And we never make fun of her age. It's just to see how the characters respond to them, especially when our younger characters are doing bad things or messing up - just to see how the older characters respond to them and if they let them fail just so they can learn their lessons or if they're going to help out.

LUSE: Brittani, what about you?

NICHOLS: I think the - why our intergenerational relationships feel different is because it's based on experience, not viewpoints. Like, I think when people try to do that sort of boomer versus millennial or Gen Z or whatever, it's always like, you know, how dare you all want to respect more people and have more varied identities than we did. It's really sort of focused on this - different approaches to the job. That's the conversation that I think is sort of happening, where we have Barbara and Melissa saying we can only deal with ourselves. We can only deal with Abbott. We can only deal with our students. Our job is to be the best teacher we can for our students, and we cannot control what is happening around us.

And then you have these younger people who are coming in and saying, OK, but what is happening around us? Is this all falling to [expletive]? So this isn't enough. We can't just be happy keeping our side of the street clean. And I think that that's more of the conversation that's happening rather than the usual wag my finger at these young ruffians who don't realize how good they have it. That was just sort of a boring conversation to have, and I think isn't very interesting anymore. To me, it is about this sort of alignment that everyone has that these systems are failing and everyone wanting to feel like the way that they're attacking it is the right way because admitting that we don't know exactly how to fix it, I think, is the scariest part of it all.

LUSE: I recently read a think piece on "Abbott" imagining an American school system that's free of police. There are no cops, school resource officers, and the teachers call out the school district and don't rely on it to fix any problems. The teachers on this show show that for them, community means organizing. But yeah, the teachers really do solve problems themselves without having to go into these carceral solutions. Is that intentional? And, like, what conversation did the writers' room have on crafting this kind of setting?

MCCRORY: I don't think we have discussed it at all. Now that I think of my school experience, we never really had a heavy police presence or security at every door, cameras, which probably really speaks to our lack of funding, but we were somehow still safe. So I think it never really even crosses my mind when I think about it. The outside perspective of a place like Detroit is that it's so violent, but within the community, we all were looking out for one another - the students, the teachers, the parents. So yeah, I never thought about, like, I wish there was a cop at this door to make me feel safe. I think that would make me feel less safe, actually.

LUSE: I can attest - it definitely did. It definitely did.

NICHOLS: Yeah. And just to piggyback off what Joya was saying about it never coming up in the room, I think that's because that's just not where our brains go, right? When these problems come up and we think about just as human beings relating to each other, how would we solve this problem? At no point does a security guard or police come to mind. At no point do any of us say, and that would have kept this from happening.

I don't think that having police at schools is the answer to what is the root causes of a lot of these issues, which is poverty, which is kids being hungry, which is there not being support systems, there not being alternative ways to deal with conflict, emotionally informed counseling, trauma-informed counseling. These things are what's missing. That's what's missing. And, you know, we can't just immediately fix that by putting those resources in a school because the reality is that they don't exist. So it is, what does it look like to have these people on their feet in these situations? So it just truly, truly, truly, truly just does not occur to us.

LUSE: So there's one plot line that I know y'all better have time for.


LUSE: OK. I respect the fact that, much like Jim and Pam on "The Office" or Leslie and Ben in "Parks And Rec," I understand that y'all are not just going to put Janine and Gregory together. I get it.


BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) By the way, thank you so much for helping. I know it isn't easy to coach someone who has the job you should have gotten.

TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS: (As Gregory Eddie) Yeah, well, it's a lot easier to say yes to things when you're the one asking.

LUSE: This narrative tension to do the whole, will they, won't they - really for me, it's more like when are they? So when are they? Like, what are the conditions that make it ripe for Janine and Gregory's relationship to bloom? Like, you don't have to tell me when. You don't have to give me an episode number; although if you want to, I'm comfortable with that. But where are each of them going to have to get to in their respective journeys in order for them to come together? 'Cause we all know is going to happen.

NICHOLS: Hey, listen. Quinta has it planned out. She knows when it's going to happen. She hasn't even specifically told us exactly when or if there will ever be a final pairing. That's information she's really keeping close to the chest.

LUSE: Or if?

NICHOLS: Listen, that is - don't get mad at me. It's not my show.


NICHOLS: But I know that they just have growing to do as people. And I think that if people really want them to ever get together and be happy together, that is growth that has to happen in order for it to be a successful relationship.

MCCRORY: I mean, yeah. Since they're both in their mid-20s, they still really do need to learn more about themselves before they could be a good partner. But every week I get a text from my grandmother, who's a huge fan of the show, and just saying, when are Janine and Gregory getting married? And I'm like, married?


MCCRORY: You really skipped a lot of steps.

LUSE: Grandma and I are on the same page. We see the vision. We see end game.


LUSE: Brittani, Joya, thank you so, so much for joining me today. "Abbott" is one of my favorite shows, and it was really an honor to speak with you both.

NICHOLS: I mean, thank you for having us. Thank you for watching. And thank you for talking about some of the undercurrent and bringing some of this stuff to light.

MCCRORY: Yes. Yes. Pay teachers more. That's the moral of my story (laughter).


LUSE: Thanks again to Brittani Nichols and Joya McCrory, writers of "Abbott Elementary." The second season is out now and going strong. Their holiday episodes have been amazing. So if you're behind, I hope you catch up soon.

This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Janet Woojeong Lee and edited by Jessica Placzek. Thanks again for joining me today on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE, and you will hear from us very soon. Take care.


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