Questions & Answers
Hey Mr. D!
What Tony Danza learned from taking on the role of a first-year teacher.
Last year, the students in sophomore English at Northeast High School in Philadelphia had a famous teacher—Tony Danza. Yes, that Tony Danza, of television and the stage. Over the course of the school year he navigated Steinbeck, battled swine flu with sanitizer, and served as teacher, counselor, and coach.
In short, Danza became “Mr. D” to students born two decades after the work that made him famous on television’s Taxi and Who’s the Boss? Before he became an actor, Danza earned his degree in history education and throughout his teaching year he worked closely with in-school instructional coach Dave Cohn.
A reality TV show about his experience, Teach: Tony Danza, aired on A&E this past year. We talked with Danza about everything from the current public dialogue about education and teachers, to what it’s like to tackle the demands of teaching in front of a camera crew.
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, with 26 students staring back?
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.”
Teacher bashing is in vogue right now. What do you make of it, having just gotten a rare first-hand look at what it takes to teach?
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.
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.
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. An 18-year-old at Rutgers killed himself this week. That’s the kind of life or death, end of the world place where these students are at in this age. The teacher has to ride the crest of that wave with them.