In his new book, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, Danza offers this brief backstory to describe how his interest in education helped land him in a classroom at Philly's Northeast High School in 2009 teaching English to 10th graders for a reality show.
The show, Teach, was short-lived, only seven episodes on A&E in 2010. And as Danza recounts it, there was tension from the outset between the reluctant reality star and the network over the show's direction and purpose.
Danza, who will talk about his book on Saturday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, said he wanted to help students avoid the mistakes he had made and illuminate the challenges teachers face in their classrooms every day. His producers were keen on capturing "drama," and they often clashed over the definition.
"The kind of show I envisioned would be risky for the network, but I was convinced that the real lives of real kids combined with my hyperreal flop sweat as a novice teacher would make for more than enough drama," Danza writes. " Responsible reality. That actually had a good ring to it."
But where to set the show? After striking out in a number of cities, including Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, Danza's production team heard from Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. If the show could help Philadelphia's students, she said, Mayor Nutter would be receptive. But the team still had to win over then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and the School Reform Commission. The process took months, and despite media fallout - one writer groused that Danza was "pimping Philadelphia's kids to kick-start his faded and stalled career" - Nutter remained supportive.
Ultimately, Danza was given the green light to teach a double period of English to 10th graders at Northeast, the district's largest high school. Philadelphians may disagree with Danza's characterization of Northeast in Rhawnhurst as "an inner-city" school, but it clearly is a racially and economically diverse one.
While the assignment may have been "real," Danza acknowledges he had fewer responsibilities than his colleagues. His roster of 26 students was one-fifth the typical teaching load, and Danza had his own teaching coach, David Cohen, who works with first-year instructors. The producers agreed to pay Cohen's salary to supervise Danza's class to make sure students would not be shortchanged by the reality experiment.
The actor worked hard to convince students and staff he was not engaged in a stunt and genuinely wanted to teach and help students. He completed the orientation for new teachers and scrubbed and decorated his classroom. Even when the camera crew wasn't there, Danza carried out regular instructional duties. He proctored tests, chaperoned dances, and rounded up tardy students.
When principal Linda Carroll asked Danza about his motives, he said he hoped the show would spotlight urban education: "We want to go beyond the easy description of failing schools and bad teachers and show the true humanity of our children and the people who work with them. There is hope."
Carroll, he said, confided that she had reservations about the show, but she took a chance "because if I didn't get anything else, I felt your sincerity."
That sincerity shines through I'd Like to Apologize. Writing in a breezy, conversational style, Danza relates the difficulties he was facing with his own family in L.A.; his nervousness; and the challenges of finding ways to engage and connect with a disparate bunch of 15-year-olds.
Danza's absorbing account includes the highlights of the 2009-10 school year, as well as the moments of failure when he felt so overwhelmed he considered abandoning his apartment in Northern Liberties and heading home.
When his first day in the classroom ends, Danza writes, "I feel like I've just lost a 10-round fight by unanimous decision."
As time passes, he finds ways to make personal connections with many students. And several of his unusual instructional techniques work, including a Pictionary-like exercise in which students draw scenes from works they have read, including Of Mice and Men.
But often what Danza counts as triumphs, his producers write off as failures. While the novice teacher is basking in the success of a whirlwind day in D.C. where his students performed snippets of Shakespeare at the Folger Library, his producer gripes: "Nothing happened. There's no drama."
Principal filming for the show ended in January 2010, but Danza continued teaching at Northeast for the rest of the school year. While the network may have considered Teach a failure as reality TV, it's clear from Danza's moving, persuasive account that his yearlong stint in the classroom was meaningful and real to him.
With I'd Like to Apologize, Danza reveals the rewards and heartbreak of teaching and offers a valentine to his students and colleagues at Philly's Northeast High School.
Martha Woodall writes about education for The Inquirer.