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.