He's often portrayed as a lovable lunkhead, but Tony Danza's got a lot going on upstairs. And now the Brooklyn-born actor, singer, dancer, day-time talk show host and prizefighter can add another notch to his belt: English teacher at a struggling inner city school in Philadelphia.
Danza, who graduated college with a degree in history education, took to the classroom with cameras in tow for a year at Philly's Northeast High. Readers may have caught the juicier parts on A&E's short-lived reality show, Teach, but Danza was determined to present a full account of his experiences at the head of the class. His passionate, engaging memoir, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High, recounts it all—warts and tears included—in his self-deprecating, humorous voice.
He caught up with us from his new home in New York City, and shared his thoughts on the difficulties schools are currently facing and learning to teach with a camera in the classroom.
Let's begin by discussing how this project came about.
I went to school to be a teacher, and I didn't do it. I got out of school and thought I was too young to teach anyone anything. I was probably right. In fact, I was definitely right. Life took me a different way. I was a prizefighter and an actor.
But as I got closer to age 60—let's just say, 50 is when you start waking up with injuries, 60 is when you start getting more reflective about life—I was thinking about teaching. It's something that's sort of permeated my career. Even Tony Micelli on Who's the Boss? became a teacher. I made all these plans to do Teach for America, and a friend of mine, a big muckity-muck producer, said, “You know, that would make a great TV show.” We ended up shooting a show that ran for six weeks on A&E, the first semester. As the comedian Lewis Black said, “We have a problem with education in America so we're going to make Tony Danza an English teacher. He doesn't even speak English.”
The only thing in that was ever present in my mind was that this was the only 10th grade English class these kids were going to get. The show unfortunately didn't run long, which was OK. That made for a better experience, a better book. But I remember thinking that when the cameras left, “There goes my authority!”
This book is my attempt to show that there's two sides to every story. There's a lot of factors that we don't speak about that are undermining education in this country. And that's some of the stuff in this book. Plus, it's a look at what it's really like to be there every day, trying to subjugate your whole being to make these kids understand that this is a great moment in their life.
How difficult was it to negotiate learning to teach with a camera in the classroom? And how distracting was it for the students?
I made a deal with myself, I wasn't going to play to the cameras. The cameramen weren't allowed to mingle with the kids. I tried to build a little bit of the wall around it and was very effective. We actually caught kids cheating on camera, which tells me that they forgot the cameras where there. The only time I paid attention to them was when I bumped into them. It really depended on me, If I didn't play to the cameras, the kids didn't either.
Trying to learn to be a teacher on the job—it's mortifying. One kid told me “You're wrong.” I loved it. But at the moment, you feel self-conscious, you're sweating, you don't know what to say. Try explaining something like irony to someone who's 15 years old who has no conception of it all. Try concisely, succinctly, make it clear. And they tune out quick. You only get one shot, you've got to get it right.
What did you find most difficult about teaching? Had you been expecting that?
The things that teachers have less training for. We don't teach teachers for what they're going to face, we teach them how to teach. The kids won't work for you, unless they think that you care about them. They've been inculcated with the same mantra the teacher has—the teacher has to engage the students. They walk in, they're there, “OK, engage me.”
As a result, the teacher shows an inordinate amount of care for the 150 students they're responsible for. And they unload on you. A lot of these kids have stories you don't want to hear. You're sitting there, wondering, “How much do I want to get involved? Where do I start?” You have to be so many things to so many of our kids. Not just a teacher but a brother, a friend, a parent, a counselor, a social worker.
We need a massive nationwide campaign—like the ones we've got to stop smoking and drunk driving—to educate kids that this little sliver of their lives now is so important. It's hard cheese, you can't just slough off and get along and find your way afterwards. It's not like that anymore.
You're still in touch with your students?
I just went to graduation in June, my kids graduated. Of the 35 kids I was intimately involved with, only two are not going on to college or vocational training. Although, those two kids are driving me crazy.
I'm trying to not be a fair-weather friend, and they need help. They really need help. The school district is really reeling, budget cuts have been unbelievable. The budget cuts are so severe [at Northeast High], they've cut the school nurse. They're talking about closing 55 schools in Philly.
So I tried to help a little bit. I did a fundraiser down there in March, a kids versus teachers talent show. The kids beat the teachers, we had American Idol–type auditions in the auditorium. I told them that they had a donor that would match any money we made. It was me, and they killed me! Said, “We're gonna murder this donor.”
The best part, the show was Thursday, and Friday I went home to emails from some teachers saying when they walked into their classrooms the next day, they got standing ovations. How often does that happen?
Anything else you'd like to add?
How lucky am I? To be able to take the road not taken.