Workplace mentorship is having a renaissance. Organizations are spending more time, energy, and effort in designing and implementing mentorship programs. Mentoring has been shown to be an effective tool for employee development. Despite the effectiveness of mentoring, many organizations have difficulty with implementing mentoring programs. As individuals, we see mentoring in various settings, and one of the most prominent pop culture examples of mentoring is the TV show Abbott Elementary.
Abbott Elementary is one of the most popular new shows in the US. It is a sitcom about teachers working in an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Without consistent financial support, the teachers at Abbott Elementary need support from one another. Like many schools, Abbott doesn’t have much money. The school has old textbooks, an insufficient infrastructure, and inadequate materials. What Abbott does have are very passionate teachers. Janine, a relatively new teacher who is the star of the show, is always trying new things to improve the school. Jacob is a second-year teacher at Abbott trying to do right by his students. The newest teacher, Gregory, originally hoped to be a principal but now finds himself teaching first grade. Abbott also has veteran teachers like Barbara Howard and Melissa Schemmenti, who are respected by all the faculty, staff, and students at Abbott, and a relatively clueless principal, Ava Coleman.
The newer instructors at Abbott are passionate and interested in trying new ideas. In the first episode, Janine seeks out mentorship from some of the senior teachers like Mrs. Howard who she admires and looks up to. As a passionate young teacher, Janine wants to try new things, so when Abbott elementary introduced a new piece of technology, Janine was quick to adopt it, while Mrs. Howard was more skeptical of the tool and investment from the school’s administration. There is tension between Mrs. Howard and Janine as Janine tries new things and Mrs. Howard cautions her against trying to do too much. Mrs. Howard’s attitude can be summed up as “I do my work. I go home.” Mrs. Howard knows what she can do within the boundaries of her role and what she can’t. Janine continually pushes to do more, giving more of herself with little regard for her own well-being. Mrs. Howard provides feedback that can help pull her back.
Mentoring between these two characters is a two-way street. When a new technology is introduced at Abbott, Mrs. Howard struggles and eventually gets support from Janine in learning how to use the new technology in her classroom. Despite the impression that mentoring is a purely top-down experience, research indicates that mentors receive as much benefit as mentees. Mentors can receive benefits like additional knowledge and a sense of reinvigoration in their careers.
At Abbott, the teachers often serve as peer mentors to one another. Peer mentoring is a mentoring relationship between equals. In many situations, a senior mentor may not be available or may not be around to help. We see this at Abbot when Gregory and Jacob support one another. Gregory often turns to Janine or Jacob to run ideas or get advice about how to manage students. Gregory also gets advice from Mrs. Howard and Melissa, but if they are unavailable, Gregory knows he can turn to his peers to get some perspective. Sometimes he listens to their advice, like when Mrs. Howard shows him how to connect with his first graders through song, but other times he doesn’t.
Peer mentoring extends to more experienced instructors as well. When Melissa was overwhelmed by being asked to teach two classes at once, Mrs. Howard was the only one who could help. She convinced Melissa to ask for a teacher’s aide. In some cases, similar peers can relate to one another more powerfully.
In this case, senior teachers with a strong relationship can connect and help one another through difficulties. We even see some group mentoring when the teachers all discuss their work in the teacher’s lounge. The ability to share experiences, commiserate with one another, and leverage knowledge are key ingredients to effective mentoring.
Abbott Elementary highlights one additional important part of mentoring: its role as a leadership substitute. In the show, Ava Coleman is shown to be a generally ineffective principal. Ava spends more time working on her social media influencer status and prepping for disasters than she does helping the school. Ava misuses resources and generally has little leadership experience. In this situation, the teachers often lead themselves, making decisions and dealing with the fallout from district policies. If your organization has experienced, competent workers, they can function effectively by using mentorship as a leadership substitute.
While mentoring can serve as a leadership substitute, it isn’t a replacement for actual resources. Abbott Elementary illustrates something important for organizational leaders to recognize about mentoring: Mentoring has many benefits, but it can’t fix a lack of resources. If you want your organization to thrive, then provide your employees with the right material resources and the right mentors.