I’ve Watched One and Done the Other, so I Know
Not all teaching is the same. I know this because I went to school from kindergarten through five years of graduate school and experienced all kinds of teachers along the way. Also, for over 30 years I taught anthropology at Cornell University, day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, everything from giant classes of 120 students to small seminars with four or five students. In addition, I am the parent of a daughter who went to 12 years of public school, then college and law school, and we talk about teaching all the time from her perspective. In other words, I am an authority on teaching and now that I’ve watched the first two seasons of Abbott Elementary I can elucidate the difference between what it’s like to work at Abbot compared to an Ivy League university. You’ll see which is the better job:
1. At Abbott Elementary the faculty get along. They even eat lunch together. To see those teachers sitting around talking about the kids, about their lives, and getting to know new teachers, was startling to me. At Cornell, the faculty barely says hello to each other in the morning. Everyone walks directly into their offices, heads down, and hides there all day if they stay on campus for a full day. Many just work from home, coming and going for a one-hour class a few times a week, which is an excellent way of avoiding other teachers. As for eating lunch together? During my long career of being a teacher at Cornell, I was invited to lunch by another faculty member exactly once, and it was a nightmare. My “colleague” spent the lunch hour berating me about my research while also claiming her work was so much more meaningful. Keep in mind we are anthropologists, not people setting out to cure cancer, so the scale of meaningfulness is pretty subjective. I walked out before dessert.
2. The faculty at Abbott is concerned when other teachers go through difficult personal times. When Janine broke up with her boyfriend in Season 2, the other teachers circled around her and gave both comfort and sage advice. At Cornell, no one would dare share their personal business, let alone cry in the hallway, because we know the rest of the faculty would just walk by and then gossip about your lack of professionalism to everyone else in the department. So, at Cornell, if you want to cry, you have to go to the bathroom in the basement or go home. At Abbott, everyone has feelings but at Cornell, feelings, and life experiences outside of academics, are not allowed.
3. All the teachers at Abbott Elementary know all the kids, no matter their age or grade — they are a community. At Cornell, we faculty don’t learn anyone’s name unless they take a seminar or are in graduate school. With an introductory anthropology of class of 120 students, how could I possibly know any of them? I only saw them three times a week for an hour, and even then, the students had to pay silent attention to my lecture and were not allowed to speak, except for asking specific questions about the material. The Abbott Elementary faculty also deeply cares about their students. They care about their students’ learning, mental health, and home life. The kids are their number one priory and that focus seems to bring Abbot Elementary teachers great purpose and joy. At Cornell, no one cares about students. After all, teaching doesn’t count for tenure (no matter if the tuition is 55K a year), so why bother? We also know squat about our students’ backgrounds. We pretend this lack of connection is part of the general switch to college life where children transition into adulthood and take care of themselves. But in general, we just don’t want to know any of them because we need that time to do research and write academic papers that no one reads.
4. The kids at Abbott Elementary wear uniforms so they are all neatly dressed and incredibly cute. At Cornell students wear all manner of clothing. They also have piercings, ratted dyed hair, lots of weird tattoos, and who knows what else. Sometimes, looking out over that sea of faces reminded me of a carnival show ready to start. But since university professors spend so little time in a classroom and pay so little attention to the students, this doesn’t matter much. But I’d still like to see these 20-year-olds in cute uniforms just for fun.
5. At Abbott Elementary, kids are not obsessed with grades. Sure, they work hard and want to learn, but they are not trying to manipulate anybody into a better grade. Most of my 30 years of Cornell were haunted by a long list of students who felt they deserved better grades than they earned. These students begged, whined, lied, threatened, and insulted me. None of this had any effect on their grades (changing them for the better, or worse, that is). After many years of this, I finally realized that I was often the first person to ever say “no” to these particular young adults; if only they had gone to Abbott Elementary where kids are told “no” all the time.
6. The shenanigans that students get up to are remarkably different at Abbot and Cornell. At Abbott, kids walk on desks for a joke. At Cornell the student shenanigans include not going to class after a night of drunkenness, falling asleep during class, looking at phones during class, not showing up for class at all, and a wide variety of fake reasons for not taking an exam or handing in an assignment on time. I can’t speak about what they do in dorms or the privacy of student apartments but as a citizen of Ithaca, New York I can tell you that their shenanigans also include red plastic cups spattered all over the roads and sidewalks, broken sofas left of the streets, loud parties all night in family neighborhoods, and not paying their rent. Not exactly shenanigans.
7. The principal of Abbott Elementary is a harmless, useless, narcissist. And she is funny. In my department at Cornell, the two guys who were department chairs for decades were also useless narcissists, but they were neither harmless nor funny. These guys thought being department chair was a power grab, a way to be top of the heap (but really, who would want such a dumb bureaucratic job?). And they demanded loyalty to their click — you were either one of them or you were ostracized. And if you became too famous, too internationally respected, they placed a target on your back; the academic jealousy was palpable. Because of these antics, a long line of decent faculty was harassed out of the Anthropology Department at Cornell and ended up at other elite universities around the country. Having been one of those targets, I just didn’t go to faculty meetings for the last eight years of my time there. That’s the glory of university teaching, you really can become a professorial ghost and find your colleagues elsewhere in the discipline. That was my strategy for dealing with these petty folks but teachers at Abbott don’t have the option — they can’t get away from each other.
8. At Abbott Elementary there are field trips — they get to go to the zoo. At Cornell, there are no field trips, although when forced to teach an additional class after I retired, I conducted a seminar about nothing at the local Starbucks and gave everyone an A. No field, and no animals, but decent coffee and we had a nice time.
9. Teachers at Abbot can threaten kids to sit down, be quiet, and do their work, and they never get in trouble with the kids’ parents. At Cornell, we are not allowed to threaten the students about anything, let alone tell them to sit down. And parents are constantly sticking their noses into our classes when their little darlings don’t get good grades. I always found this hilarious, and sad. Once some parent left an anonymous message on the department phone that his daughter deserved a better grade on an exam because “that Dr. Small had no idea what a bell curve was.” After the department secretary and I had a good laugh, I went to class and gave a lesson about the difference between a grading curve and a bell curve. Presumably, some kid was mortified and hopefully told their parent to butt out. Another time some father contacted the Dean and the department chair complaining that his kid should have a higher level of honors because he had read her honors thesis and decided it was really good. This, too, was comical because he was a lawyer, not an anthropologist, and his daughter apparently had not told him that I had heavily edited her thesis because it was an incomprehensible mess. Her honors level stayed the same. I would have liked to tell her, and her father, to be quiet and sit down.
10. And at the end of the school year at Cornell, no one, not the Dept Chair, not the Dean, not anyone, ever says, “You’ve come a long way, Dr. Small. I’m glad you’re at Cornell” (see Season One, last Episode of Abbott Elementary). But it’s o.k because, like an Abbott teacher, I liked the students a lot and over time got to know many of them. After watching Abbott Elementary, I thought of switching to teaching kindergarten or first grade. But I don’t have the physical stamina or mental acuity, let alone the devotion to other people’s children, that it takes to be an Elementary, Middle School, or High School teacher. How do they do it? These true teachers deserve Ivy League salaries way more than the people who get them.