Tony Danza talks about respect for public school teachers
By Cynthia McCabe
Tony Danza is crying. He’s not far into a year in which he will teach sophomore English to students at Northeast High School in Philadelphia — as an actual job, not for a role - and he’s come to the realization that he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Spoiler alert: he did make it through the year, successfully navigating Steinbeck and Shakespeare, battling swine flu with sanitizer, and serving as teacher, counselor and coach to his students. In short, Tony Danza became, simply, “Mr. D” to a group of sophomore English students born two decades after the work that made him famous on television’s Taxi and Who’s the Boss?
Danza says he wanted to spend the year teaching at the diverse 3,400-student Northeast High to atone for the sins of his educational past. He admits he wasn’t a good student and wanted to step in at a crucial age in a child’s life to help them take charge of their futures, through education. The idea of students dropping out of school vexes him. Long before he became an actor, Danza received his degree in history education and throughout his teaching year he worked closely with in-school instructional coach Dave Cohn.
With the year now behind him, and the documentary show about his experience, Teach: Tony Danza, premiering tonight on A&E, he says he’s mulling writing a book. Working title? “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year at Northeast High.”
We talked with Danza about everything from the public dialogue right now about education and teachers, to what it’s like to tackle the demands of teaching in front of a camera crew. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
How distracting were the cameras and your famous past for you and the students?
Here’s the thing I learned about students: they want to get you off topic. They love to get you off topic. But I’d get off topic so much the kids didn’t like it! I really tried to make it an English class. I ignored the cameras as much as I could. You really don’t have much time to do anything but the curriculum. You only have so much time. To Kill a Mockingbird is 31 chapters. Julius Caesar is five acts. I really made sure the kids came first.
What was that first moment like, when you’ve got 26 students staring back at you?
I’d planned how I was going to introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Mr. Danza…” and I’m standing there and I can’t get it out. I start hedging. “Um, I’m supposed to be your English teacher.” And one of my kids says, “Did anyone ever tell you it’s funny you’re going to be teaching English?” I thought, “This is going to be a long year.” (Get a sneak peek at clips from Teach: Tony Danza and see him talk about why there’s a need for inspiring public school teachers in the nation’s schools.)
Teacher bashing is en vogue right now. What do you make of it, having just gotten a rare first-hand look at what it takes to teach?
I think there’s been a little bit of a shift where people are taking education seriously. But when I watch all this stuff I get sensitive. We all know there are bad teachers. But there’s a reason 30 percent burn out after a few years and half leave after five. You’re up against a culture that doesn’t celebrate education. Now we blame everybody else. We look to blame others and some of this is being ginned up by certain politicians. At Northeast, I saw a lot of good and dedicated teachers. I feel a tremendous responsibility to teachers now. When you finish, you really see the need.
Having experienced teaching first-hand now, what’s your take on merit pay?
If they could take out some of the variables, like “disruptive kids”, maybe merit pay works. (People tell me) at a private school you’ve got smaller class sizes, better teachers. We’ll you’re also paying for like-minded parents who all have skin in the game. If you want to give those teachers merit pay in that situation, fine. But as long as we’re not all in that situation… We’ve sort of conditioned the kids to think it’s the teacher’s job to do the whole thing.
First-year teachers often have a moment in which they think they can’t step back into the next class or come back the next day. Did you hit that wall?
If you have five classes, four are good and one’s bad. You’ll talk to a couple kids who’ll break your heart. I met with my instructional coach, David Cohn, one day and he asked me, “Did you cry yet?” And I just lost it. I didn’t think I could do this. I maybe understood at that moment what it was going to take, subconsciously, and I was like, “Oh boy.”
So what tricks did you pull out of your sleeve to get through that first year?
I pulled a couple of stupid stunts to try to encourage the students but those are long stories. I was a first-year teacher. You can’t help but get in trouble! We’re out there as teachers and now you really need to do collaborative learning and you have to use the techniques learned through research. There was a moment where David told me, “You’re performing up there. You’ve got to facilitate them learning. You’ve got to make them do it.”
What role did administrators play in your success during your first year in the classroom?
They were putting their jobs on the line by letting me near the place. They were around me. They encouraged me. There were times (Principal Linda Carroll, at right) took me to task and told me, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What surprised you about being an educator?
You’re counseling. You’re a teacher. You’re a friend. You’re a psychologist. You’re a social worker. It really runs the gamut. There’s an 18-year-old who killed himself at Rutgers this week. That’s the kind of life or death, end of the world place that these students are at at this age. The teacher has to ride the crest of that with them.
We closed by asking Danza what some of his proudest moments were from his year at Northeast High. They were myriad. Serving as the commencement speaker, helping coach football, producing the first teacher talent show (“Seven hundred people paid a buck to come watch us make jerks of themselves,” he jokes. And for the record, he sang Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”) He talks about his friendship with the school’s math department chair, who was initially skeptical but whose respect ultimately he earned.
But there’s one thing that stays with him above all else.
“They put me in the yearbook with the rest of the English department,” he said, his wide smile evident on the other end of the phone. “Right there in front of my blackboard.”
Photo credit: A&E