Failed reality show ignites a passion for education

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: September 14, 2012

Before he took to Broadway as a song-and-dance man, before he kept house in Who's the Boss?, before he helped make sitcom history as addled boxer Tony Banta in Taxi, Tony Danza wanted to be a teacher.

Nearly four decades after earning a degree in history from the University of Dubuque in Iowa, Danza finally got his wish with the A&E reality show Teach: Tony Danza, which had him teach sophomore English at Northeast High in Philadelphia for the 2009-10 academic year.

The show flopped: It was canceled in the fall of 2010 after only seven episodes.

Yet, as he writes in his new book, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High, the experience at Northeast was a life-changer for Danza, igniting a passion for education that he says will define the rest of his life.

Danza, who will talk about his memoir Saturday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, has become something of a school activist. In the two years since his class ended, he has kept in touch with Northeast High. He has spoken against budget cuts at education forums in Philadelphia, most recently in February when the school district laid off several school nurses. He set up two scholarships for graduating seniors, and he has put on a song-and-dance show to raise funds for Northeast.

Danza, 61, said in a phone interview that the crisis in American public education has continued to shock him.

"I don't think you can have a dropout rate of - what, close to a million kids? - and expect our country to prosper," he said. "We have to educate them, all of them, and not just the kids with money. I just worry about which way it's heading."

The lack of proper funding for public education, Danza said, is a national crisis, yet one that's never discussed.

"You don't hear about it anywhere. We're in the middle of a presidential campaign, and you don't hear about it," Danza said. "There's a move to privatize education, something that's going to destroy this great leveling thing that we used to have in the country."

Danza said public education has been one of the most effective ways to unite Americans and to provide an even playing field.

"That was the idea, E pluribus unum, out of many, one," said Danza, evoking the familiar Latin words from the seal of the United States. "That's what public schools did."

Politicians aren't the only ones to blame, Danza said. American culture devalues education and the men and women who provide it.

"There are so many messages in our culture that are antithetical to education and that actually, actively, undermine it," he said.

"For one thing, we no longer have a nurturing society. In my day, every night, there was a message on TV reminding you it was time for kids to go to bed, or asking parents if they knew where their kids were," said Danza. "Today, the media is more interested in selling things to kids."

His own experience of teaching may have come as part of a reality show (a prospect that repelled him at first), but Danza said he believed he would do more good than harm if the show and his book inspired debate about education.

Children today enter the educational system far less equipped than ever before to handle its demands, he said. "Nowadays, the teacher has to be so many things to kids: his brother, sister, teacher, counselor, father, mother, psychologist. So many things that children should have gotten at home, they are now supposed to be taught at school.

"Just try to teach children the value of self-control in a 45-minute class," the actor said. "It's a rough road."

Danza learned during his year at Northeast, he said, that the most difficult thing for a teacher to do is to make students understand that education is important to them.

It's an uphill battle, given parental apathy, the devaluation of teachers, and the anti-work-ethic messages endemic in popular culture, he said.

"The worst thing is that when their kids get into trouble, the parents always blame the teacher," said Danza. Parents, no less than children, no longer view teachers as authority figures, he said. More often than not, teachers are treated as if they were service-industry workers.

Part of the problem is that most people just don't think of teachers as having an important job.

"I was talking to this guy the other day whose wife is a teacher, and he was complaining about how easy she had it," said Danza. "If your husband doesn't get how hard the job is, imagine everyone else!"

Not only are teachers not accorded authority, but also they work in run-down, underfunded facilities, Danza said. "How can you give kids a message that someone cares or that their education is important if they are stuck in these old facilities?" he said. "The kids walk in there and think, if it's so important, then why does the school look like a dingy Kmart?"

Worse, said Danza, children are bombarded with messages that success in life boils down to money and fame, which can be had without education. Example? MTV's Jersey Shore, whose stars are known for nothing more than partying. " Jersey Shore tells them education doesn't really matter," Danza said.

"But you can't give up," he added. "As a teacher or a parent. It's a grind, but you just can't give up."


Read The Inquirer's review of Tony Danza's book, which appeared in Arts

& Entertainment last Sunday, at www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/literature


Contact Tirdad Derakhshani

at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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