Monday, September 20, 2010

What’s Tony Danza’s value-added score?

 If you have ever wanted to hear an ’80s-era sitcom star utter the phrase “professional development workshops,” then A&E sure has a show for you. “Teach: Tony Danza” debuts October 1, with the first of seven one-hour episodes about the actor teaching—for real—tenth-grade English in a Philadelphia public school.

Naturally I am all in favor of bringing viewers/readers/listeners as deep into the classrom as possible, so they can better understand the challenges, successes and failures of American education. And as an avid gatherer of useless celebrity tidbits, I was happy to collect some about Danza: He is extremely bow-legged; he is obsessed with hand sanitizer; he sweats through his clothes a lot, which a student points out to him. But wow—I feel really bad for the 26 kids in Danza’s class.

No doubt there are plenty of other novice teachers as bad as he is, but it’s hard to imagine any more self-centered. On the first day, Danza told his mentor teacher that he wanted his students to begin working the moment they entered the classroom, yet he also said, “I do wanna speechify.” Guess which approach the showman takes? Yes, he opens the class with stories about his dad the garbage man. Through seven episodes he talks about himself constantly and is deaf to his colleagues’ pleas that he shut up and let the kids talk once in a while.

Any decent teacher will cringe about 14 times per episode—a number so low only because the show spends a lot of time at variety shows and football practice. I kept telling myself that there was a lot I wasn’t seeing. I hoped that the instructions for his first homework assignment consisted of more than “if you can just think of a family story, a friend story, something that happened, half a page minimum.” I hoped that the producers felt that actual instruction was really boring, and that is why they showed us almost none of it.

Tony Danza’s version of education is, it turns out, 1 percent instruction and 99 percent motivation and effort. (When in doubt, speechify!) Just work harder, just practice—I guess when your teacher spends half his time talking about himself, that’s all you can do. When special ed kids want to go to the resource room to take their quizzes, when one of them cries because she doesn’t understand what she’s reading, he insists all they need is to try harder. Accommodations, he suggests, are for wusses. His supervisors smack him down, for lacking compassion and neglecting “legalities”—yes, ladies and gentlemen, a scene about IEPs on prime-time television!

“It’s not about you,” Danza’s mentor tells him, which shows that clearly he has never been friends with an actor before. The school’s principal owns the best line of the show: “You don’t get the tag of teacher until your students are learning.” She is perpetually skeptical of Danza (though not so much so to pass on the whole idea). The kids are rightfully concerned that they’re getting shortchanged by having an actor for a teacher, and so are their parents. At a school football game Danza gets rained on literally and figuratively, by parents who care a lot about their children’s education and nothing for “Who’s the Boss.” They speak to him like any parent would speak to a teacher, about the need for vigilance, communication and agenda books.

These conversations, which feel like they could be happening anywhere, with anyone:  That’s where the show is good. Danza cares and tries—he obviously does. He lays bare the difficulty of teaching for the slowest kids in the class without losing the smartest ones, the frustrations faced when a kid simply won’t do his work.

But you don’t need a tap-dancer (yes, sorry to say, Danza tap-dances) to hang a show like that on. You just need a teacher.


  1. Great review Linda. I am curious if they showed him receiving any training. I read he has a degree in history education, is this true? It is great that reality TV attempting something more serious than rich people in CA shopping, decorating and getting manicures. (Even if we must endure Tony Danza tap dancing.)

  2. Love it! Now let's see some editorial writers plopped in front of classrooms (their employment securityis a whole lot less certain than Tony Danza's anyway, so it might be useful in preparation for a future career change).

  3. I am really excited for this series, refreshing in the reality realm and if anything I bet Tony has heart which too often is missing in teachers who are burnt out.

  4. They do show him in some PD! And yes, he has heart.

  5. Teaching is an ongoing learning experience. Different each year, each day, since we educate children, not books. Teachers need guidance without evaluation. Effective teachers reflect on their day, their week, their year, their children, etc and this helps them work on their weaknesses. Great teachers aren't just born,it is with support from parents, teachers, coaches, and their school admin, teachers can help students acheive. This doesn't happen overnight or even in one year. I wonder what kind of teacher Tony might be after some reflection on his first year and another intense year.

  6. Im watching and I think he's sincere and has good intentions. Tony Danza is cool.

  7. I love Tony. He is a teacher who shows he cares. He brings the human element to the class which may be help quite a bit. I never knew he was soooo bow legged. He's still very handsome in my view.
    Let's give him a chance folks, I think he'll be fine. Hey ladies, he's single too.

  8. As a teacher for thirty years, I am glad to see that finally the public will have a first hand glimpse into how challenging teaching can be. I loved the workshop presenter's comment about how so many people think it's easy, and hey... we get the summers off. I believe Tony helps to highlight this and he also shows how teaching is about the students and not about you, the teacher. Even though he talks too much, he cares, and that is a step in the right direction when working with teenagers.

  9. I was skeptical about this show, but it is clear he cares and is trying.

    He won me over when I saw him being interviewed, I think on the today show or Nightline (Not sure) He was asked about NCLB and he did not have kind words regarding the program. He seemed very humble, knew his limits and role. He was not the best teacher, but he shed light on how difficult this job is especially in an urban district.

    So far it looks like he is a great example for why we need trained educators. I do not know what his motivations were. He may have started this project thinking he could teach without training, then quickly realized he was in way over his head.

    It would be weird to have him as a teacher I imagine. Since I am old, I compare it to Robert Reed (Brady Bunch dad) as my teacher.