Janelle James Deserves an Emmy for ‘Sick Day’ Teaching

It is trying times for school teachers who are just trying to make it to winter break. The team over at Abbott Elementary is no different, especially with an ongoing substitute teacher shortage in the Philadelphia area. That, paired with a bunch of sick teachers, is a recipe for disaster. If Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) can’t lead our next generation of thinkers, who else will?

The answer may surprise you: Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), who steps up to the plate in this week’s episode of Abbott Elementary, “Sick Day.” Ava shoots herself in the foot in the first few minutes of the episode. She takes everything out of the fridge to make room for her new skincare line, which requires refrigeration, apparently. Janine’s lunch (a tuna salad sandwich, which probably demands more refrigeration than some eye patches) gets kicked out in the process, moved to the overheated windowsill instead of a fridge shelf.

Janine, foolish as ever, gobbles down the entire sandwich. Not long after, she’s FaceTiming Ava from home on her deathbed, attempting not to barf as she asks for a sick day. Ava grants her one—though Janine attempts to come to work several times—and attempts to call her a sub. No such luck. The district’s out of subs.

Everyone’s busy subbing in for each other; even Ashley (Keyla Monterroso Mejia), Melissa’s (Lisa Ann Walter) wacky aide, is out subbing for another teacher. Janitor Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) refuses to step up to the task. With no other options, Ava does the only thing she knows how to: She looks in the mirror. Ms. Coleman, substitute teacher, is ready for duty.

Janelle James truly deserves an Emmy for this outstanding portrayal of a school administrator on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Ava doesn’t know how to teach, and on top of her ignorance, she refuses to learn. She’s Janine’s boss! She shouldn’t have to know to turn the lights on at the start of the day, or write the date on the whiteboard. Don’t kids have phones to check what day it is?

The day’s task that Ava must administer to the second graders: a spelling test. Shockingly, the kids are eager to be quizzed—or maybe this shouldn’t be such a surprise, given Janine’s vigor for learning. Still, Ava screws up in the most Ava way possible. She blasts music for the children as they practice their spelling, and instead of submitting lists of words like “eager” and “either,” they turn in photos of the Babadook.

Overwhelmed, Ava nearly throws in the towel on teaching. But it’s sweet Gregory (Tyler James Williams) who convinces her to read Janine’s sub plans, write the day at the top of the white board, and follow through with the spelling test. Ava finally does, and the kids begin their top-notch learning again. Or, rather, maybe it’s middle-tier learning. Ava’s still not ready to teach a class full of kids.

And this is precisely why Janelle James deserves recognition for this episode. Although Ava gets some retribution for her snarky attitude, the whole arc isn’t overly saccharine. Ava is still, holistically, a damn mess. She’s not lovable. None of her staff respect her because she taught one class. Ava is chaotic, and she always will be, even if she came through for Janine in one episode.

As always, Abbott fans chimed in on Twitter to share their love for Principal Coleman, including a comparison between Ava and Michael Scott. Maybe this is accurate—but let’s assume it’s first-season-of-The-Office Michael, not finale-era Michael, who was more lovable than Ava will ever be.

Abbott Elementary will return for one final 2023 episode next week on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC before taking a holiday hiatus.

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