“Abbott Elementary,” the Emmy-award-winning sitcom created by Quinta Brunson, has returned for its third season, and the series remains just as witty and fun as it’s always been. However, the mega-sized opener titled “Career Day Part 1 & 2” suggests the comedy is ready to tackle one of the most significant issues facing the public education system in America – teacher burnout.
In previous seasons, audiences have witnessed the Abbott teachers bend and twist themselves in knots to get adequate resources while dealing with a self-centered and inept (though hilarious) principal, Ava Coleman (Janelle James). Veteran educators Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), now decades in to the profession, have mastered the art of delivering with less. Meanwhile, Janine Teagues (Brunson) and Jacob Hill’s (Chris Perfetti) naïveté and love of educating have enabled them to imagine a future for Abbott students that likely won’t come to fruition. Rounding out the pack is newcomer Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams). Although he cares about his work, he’s jaded enough to lean toward self-preservation.
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America’s education system is quickly dissolving into a pile of ash. Teachers — who wear various hats, extending past the role of educator — are chronically underpaid, and public schools, especially in cities serving minority populations like Abbott, are underfunded and devalued. Caring educators are forced to fill in the gaps. Placing teachers in such unfair positions has led to burnout and droves of fantastic and highly qualified educators leaving their roles. According to a 2018 study covering three decades of America’s teaching workforce, new teachers are leaving the profession by year five at a rate of 44%, with 25% of that turnover happening in inner cities. As “Abbott Elementary” enters its third season, the sitcom seems willing to unpack the emotional exhaustion that pushes some of the best and brightest right out the door.
After cleverly explaining the show’s five-month hiatus (which in real life was due to the dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes), “Career Day Part 1” flashes back to the beginning of the school year. The Abbott staff has gathered for Development Day, when teachers finalize lesson plans and set up classrooms. During a meeting, an always eager Janine pitches a school-wide Career Day. Just as quickly, Ava, who has apparently spent her summer at Harvard University, slaps down the idea.
Previously, Janine took apathetic responses to her proposals in stride. Yet, as she moves toward her fourth year of teaching, something is different. Though she vows to take a page out of Barbara’s book and accept the things she cannot change, there is a weariness in her voice and attitude that wasn’t present before. Moreover, three Philadelphia school district representatives, led by a suspicious do-gooder, Manny (Josh Segarra), puts all the teachers on edge, mainly because the district has delivered only terrible policies and broken promises.
The second half of the opener, “Career Day Part 2,” flashes forward to the present day, and while Janine’s Career Day has finally come to fruition, it’s not in the way anyone might have expected. The episode demonstrates how frustrating it can be to work in a system intent on remaining stagnant when the educators and students learning to thrive (or survive) within it are expected to keep up with the ever-evolving world around them. The teachers at Abbott have faced triggers like combative parents, overpopulated classrooms and unsafe working conditions in the past, but this season already feels a bit different.
Of course, “Abbott Elementary” retains its comedic beats and brilliance. This episode has extra-special guest stars, makes perfect use of Juvenile’s 1998 classic “Back That Azz Up,” and includes an outlandish tale from everyone’s favorite custodian, Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis). Also, the will-they, wont-they between Janine and Gregory is still simmering below the surface. Yet, Brunson and the writers have suited up to tackle some of the deeper and more complex issues causing educators nationwide to run for the hills. While the humor in the series remains heartfelt, viewers might start to see why a maturing and less wide-eyed Janine may eventually find it too emotionally exhausting to continue on in the classroom. For decades, teachers have been begging to be seen, and Season 3 of “Abbott Elementary” has tasked itself with truly pulling back the veil.
“Abbott Elementary” premieres Feb. 7 on ABC, with new episodes dropping weekly on Wednesdays.
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