Abbott Elementary, the documentary-style comedy on ABC about teachers in an elementary school, is a certifiable hit. The show strikes the right balance between humor and honesty that makes it relatable, but still entertaining, even for teachers who are going through some stuff right now. We sat down with one of the writers on the show, Kate Peterman, and asked her to tell us about her work on this teacher-friendly show.
You got to write the script for Episode 7, The Art Teacher. What is the process? How does this work with a writer’s room?
There is a little bit of every single person in the writer’s room in every episode. Every writer in the room pitches in to break the story. When we go away to write the script, we know what will happen ahead of time and we’re given a detailed outline from the writer’s assistant and PA. The attitude wasn’t “here’s a concept, go figure it out.” This was really helpful since it was my first episode of network television. I was so scared and having really clear boundaries for an episode that I could add my own jokes to felt really great.
After I was done writing, I brought it back to the room and everyone rewrote it together and added even more jokes. So the entire script gets “filtered” by the room even after I’m done writing it. It’s a safety net.
What kind of research do you do for Abbott Elementary? Do you have teachers you consult?
Almost everyone in the writer’s room has a fam
ily member who is a teacher. My mom is a public school teacher. She went back to school to become a teacher when I was in elementary school. I know how much goes into becoming a teacher. I’ve seen the struggles outside of the classroom: lesson plans, grading papers, worrying about her kids. There’s so much more to the job! It’s not just an 8 – 3 job! It’s 24 hours!
I went to public school my whole life and you could see when a teacher was struggling. I was a bit blind to it in school, but living with a teacher helps you see what is happening behind the scenes. Sometimes people would tease my mom about having summers off and I could see her wince because those summers are such a necessity for someone who works, mentally and emotionally, 24 hours a day.
Teaching is such a big responsibility. Teachers have no idea the power of their words. I had an elementary teacher who gave me a book and said “this one has more pictures so you can read it.” And that stuck with me and embarrassed me (especially since I really could read.) I left the program because of her. But who knows what my teacher was going through when she gave me that picture book? It messed me up, but I know I don’t have the whole story because I’ve watched my mom have good days and bad.
And on the flip side, I had a teacher in high school who read my work and said it was one of the funniest plays he’d read and it gave me so much confidence. What teachers say holds so much weight! They can make or break a student!
How does your experience with education (as a student) inform your writing for Abbott Elementary? Are there any pieces of Kate that show up in the episode you wrote?
One thing that I get excited about writing about is the moods and the fun that the kids have. There’s an upcoming episode that touches on these young kids having fun with a trend and it impacts their teachers in an irritating way. The students are having the time of their lives and being kids and the teacher has to deal with the annoyance. (And, in the end, acknowledge that the kids are pretty funny.)
Public school was generally rougher around the edges. The teachers didn’t have the time to get to know us. So I brought that experience to the writing. But also, Quinta Brunson (creator) wants the school to be very specific to Philadelphia, so sometimes my experiences don’t translate.
Abbott Elementary does a great job at recognizing the way teachers give their own time and money to fill gaps in schools. Is it intentionally woven into the theme?
In being as honest as possible, it’s just the truth about what teachers do. I think the cool thing about writing teachers is that we don’t really have to add heroics. Those things are just there. We don’t have to do an episode about how messed up it is that teachers spend their own money, it’s just the truth and you can see it. We don’t have to preach about it.
I once went to help my mom set up her classroom. She brought her own string lights to create a calm environment for the kids to stimulate their creativity. She tapped into her own pockets to create that mood for the students. And it’s nice that teachers do that, but they shouldn’t have to do it. We kind of romanticize the lengths that people go to for good things, but it just literally shouldn’t be necessary. So in the show, we try to just give an honest portrayal and trust that it’s obvious to everyone how wrong it is that teachers have to do this.
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