Tony Danza recently opened an email from a girl who was one of his 10th grade English students last year at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School. It was part thank you and part update. “I’m getting smart early,” she wrote. Danza beams. “It’s wild,” he says. Actually, what’s wild is picturing the 59-year-old in front of a classroom, and even wilder is that his year of magical teaching, now the A&E reality series ‘Teach: Tony Danza,’ premiering Friday at 10/9c, is as effecting as it was effective.
The actor best known for his work on ‘Taxi‘ and ‘Who’s The Boss?’ found his first days teaching Shakespeare and “To Kill A Mockingbird” “overwhelming” and “frightening,” but ultimately “one of the most incredible experiences I’ve been through.” He cried three times the first week. “You’re standing in front of 26 kids, and you’re afraid they’re going to unmask you, and think you’re a fraud – that you shouldn’t be here, and what are you doing?,” he told me, adding a self-doubting, “And what have I done? What have I done?!
The right thing – if not the timely thing. Education is on the forefront of political and pop culture discussions in America with President Obama’s Top grant and the critically acclaimed documentary film ‘Waiting for Superman,’ Danza’s show couldn’t have come at a more socially relevant moment. He undertook the challenge for two main reasons – a scarcity of acting gigs and a need to nourish his soul.
“Look, I’m not interested in helping my career,” he explained. “But I will say that part of the impetus was — I’m sitting around. I’m not going to tell you they offered me the greatest jobs, but I’m also at an age [where] I smell 60. I feel like I should be doing something. I’ve had a great life. My kids are grown. I feel like I should be trying to give something back. We have a terrible problem in this country. We have a 50 percent dropout rate in the inner city. We have a real problem, and it’s unsustainable. We have to address that. Was there a part of [me that said] ‘I’m not working. Let’s see what else I can do with myself?’ Yes.”
With a BA in history but no teaching license, Danza was joined by an instructional coach, but frequently questioned the legitimacy of what he was doing in front of a blackboard. “There was a lot of that constant, ‘Oh my God, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, and I’m really going to be sorry about this,” he says. Danza – the students nicknamed him Mr. D – also had to answer skeptical school administrators and parents. “I went in there and had to win over a lot of people,” he says. “And it took a lot of work and determination to make this thing, to make people believe this wasn’t just some baloney show you were going to do.”
Danza spoke to us from Los Angeles.
Do you remember what grades you got in English?
I did 85. I was an 85 student. Enough to keep my mother happy, enough to keep the high school happy. I did just enough.
So you weren’t a straight-A student?
No. And it bothers me. And that’s one of the things I try and tell the kids. I gave one detention all year. Yeah – one detention. And I didn’t know that when I gave a detention, I had to be there, which was really strange. I thought they went to some detention place, but I ended up being there. So I said to her [the student], ‘How long do you think you’ll be in school?’ And she said, ‘Ugh, forever.’ And I said, ‘No. Here’s your life. You don’t want to be looking back over here and saying, Why didn’t I do better?
Had you read all the books you were teaching? Did you have to reread them?
Oh yeah, I had to read the curriculum. The good news about 10th grade English, [is] it’s chock full of life lessons, just when the kids need them. When you go into 10th grade, you’re fifteen, you’re gonna be sixteen. Even though you talk about the idea of a hero, you talk about the idea of a story; you talk about the loyalty between friends in “Of Mice And Men;” you talk about making the best of a bad situation – seeing things from other people’s perspective, and treating people the way you want to be treated. All those lessons are in the curriculum.
Some of those lessons sound like they could apply to you in this situation as well.
Well of course. And not only that, but lessons that I felt you could somehow tie to the literature. Then the literature would remain in their minds. That’s the thing that I think I was missing when I was a kid. I didn’t see the relevance. I’d read [To Kill a] “Mockingbird,” [and] when Scout says to her father, ‘Yes, I want Aunt Alexandra to come over,’ she’s making the best out of a bad situation. Well, that’s a lesson kids have to learn because that’s going to happen in your life, where you have no choice, or limited choices. We had a couple of instances where it worked out, and then it would reappear – the lesson. That’s locked in, then you’ve got something.
Why did you choose Philly?
Well first off, Philadelphia is the greatest, most underrated city in the country. I love it. I adore it. It’s got everything. It’s got history, museums, ballet, a theater district, great food, and night life. You can hail a cab! And the Phillies! It’s got everything you could want! And it’s manageable! It’s a great little city. It’s also a little bit more Middle America than the coast. We were gonna go to New York – that’s where I grew up – and see if we could do it there. But we got the call from the mayor’s office in Philadelphia. He [Mayor Michael Nutter] says, ‘I really like the idea and the show, and we’d like you to be here. We’d give you 14 high schools to choose from.’
Why Northeast High out of all the other schools?
Northeast was perfect. It has 57 different languages, [and] 3,500 kids. It’s a comprehensive school. If you come there and say, ‘I want to go here,’ they gotta take you. [It also had] A really big palate with a lot of activities and a lot of teachers running those activities, making it a very interesting thing. Not only for high school but also for show.
Tell me about your first day in the classroom.
Well I was at the school for orientation for that, but teachers were in September 1st and then students didn’t come until September 8th. So we had a week together. I cleaned my classroom, I decorated.
And you bonded with the other teachers?
And [I] bonded with the other teachers! It’s very upsetting though, because what happens is you learn all the teachers’ first names, and then as soon as the kids come, you can’t call them by their first names anymore so you’ve got to learn all their second names. And then in a yearbook, when you try to learn a name, all it says is their initial. It doesn’t actually say their name. This is the only prop I’ve brought [picks up Northeast High School yearbook on the table]. This is the yearbook from last year, and I’m not only in it, but the one place that I’m specially in it…it just really blows my mind…I mean, I was there the whole year, I didn’t miss a day, I was even there sometimes when the cameras were gone, cameras left for a while, and I stayed. But look [points to page], there I am, in the English department. And I’m in front of a blackboard.
Did you do your own lesson plans? Did you have an assistant teacher?
No, I had no one. I had someone watching me. That’s all. Just a watcher, but I had to write and submit my lesson plans every week, and try and be creative, and try and be engaging, and try to find a way to make “Of Mice and Men” really interesting.
How daunting was that first day with students in the classroom? What were you expecting going in, and did it live up to those expectations?
Well yeah, daunting. And if you see me talking to the kids I don’t say, ‘I’m here to be your English teacher,’ I said, “I’m supposed to be teaching you English.’ It’s the weirdest thing. And the kids, you’ve got to remember, the kids are pretty experienced. They’ve been in school 10 years. They know teachers up and down. They could tell, and they can read you. And so they were tough, but I think the thing that was most striking that day was how fast the bell came. The bell was on me before I knew it, and it’s not a bell, it’s like a prison siren – but that’s another story. It was on me so quick, and I messed up. I left out things, but it’s a learning process. It’s so frightening. First of all, they’re all looking at you. And second of all, you feel a tremendous responsibility. And I felt an added responsibility because I know I signed up for this show but they didn’t sign away their 10th grade. And I had no right to not have these kids have that 10th grade. I couldn’t let them down! I was like under that tremendous amount of pressure – pressure on myself, I put that on myself.
Did the kids recognize you as Tony Danza?
No. I’m telling you! First of all, I’m an old guy! I’ll tell you how I know this as a fact, too. Just before I went to Philly, a friend of mine was in jail and he was transferred downtown. So while he was there, I went to visit him and I went about four times in two weeks. I was in the jail waiting room with thousands of young people – kids. I didn’t get recognized once.
What about the parents of the kids?
Yeah, but the parents wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to be some joke, that their kids were going to get a 10th grade. I mean, they liked the idea but, [it’s like] Okay, now make sure you get this thing done.
After this experience, do you have any changed opinions about the way teachers are valued and compensated in this country?
The only compensation a teacher has is their love of doing the work, since there’s hardly any money. The responsibility is overwhelming. Every day, you get told what bad people they [the kids] are. Then, a kid comes in one day and says, ‘Hey, you helped me. You made a difference in my life.’ That’s really it.
If you could hand out any salary to a high school English teacher, what would you give?
Well, I don’t have enough experience to say it. But what I would say is that one of the problems you see in the kids is that they don’t have a model of success – no model of success that’s related to education. They’ve got Snoop Dogg, he sells Chrysler’s, he was on ‘The View.’ Can you believe this? And don’t get me wrong, that’s the model. The teachers are not a model of success ‘cause they know teachers aren’t making money. So, more than a salary – it would be easy if that was enough – it’s just the way we respect the people who are our teachers. Instead of hearing ‘Those who can’t do do, and those who can’t teach,’ the kids hear that, [and] they know that. So then a teacher doesn’t become a model for success. And that’s tough, ‘cause who’s the model?
Did you become the model?
Well, I was a little bit of a model. I had a kid say to me the first day, ‘Are you a millionaire?’ So I said, ‘I guess I am a millionaire. But I want you to know something: A million isn’t what it used to be. And that’s the lesson of the day.’
‘Teach: Tony Danza’ Premieres Friday, October 1 at 10/9c on A&E.