“Who’s the Boss?” was Tony Danza’s 1980s-’90s sitcom. It also could have been the title of his new memoir, about his year teaching English in a Philadelphia high school.
Instead, “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High” depicts Danza as alternately at the mercy of a humorless assistant principal or his students, none of whom is impressed by his celebrity and some of whom actually tell him to grow a backbone.
“It was a tremendous challenge,” Danza said. “It takes a certain amount of hubris to think you can be a teacher.” Danza’s journey to the front of the classroom started after his daytime talk show was canceled, he’d separated from his wife (and would later file for divorce), and he was approaching 60.
“It hit me that I could be running out of time,” wrote Danza, whose father, a sanitation worker, died at 62.
The actor, who earned a history degree from the University of Dubuque and had once planned to be a teacher, decided it was time. He reached out to Teach for America, which places recent college graduates and professionals of varying backgrounds into rural and urban schools. He then discussed the idea with his former executive producer, who saw reality-show potential.
The production team approached numerous school systems without luck before Philadelphia signed on.
Danza sensed skepticism among other teachers.
“I’m not exactly known as a man of letters,” he said. And a Philadelphia Daily News column said the show was merely a way “to pimp our kids’ education to an unemployed sitcom actor who wants to kick-start his stalled career.” Ouch.
“Teach” ran for just six weeks on A&E (not enough drama, the honchos decided), but Danza stayed the entire 2009-10 school year, and even gave the commencement address.
“My goal was to show them that I was serious,” he said. “The greatest compliment I was paid was that the principal asked me to come back.”
He decided not to return. Not because he didn’t enjoy it; maybe because he enjoyed it too much.
“I think at my age, I’m not sure I want to care this much,” he said. “It’s an overwhelming commitment.”
His book changes the names of the teens to protect their privacy, but not their stories, and it’s clear he became attached to students like the 19-year-old sophomore still struggling to read, the budding poet who draws on his chaotic life in foster care to inform his verses, or the burly football player who absorbs the message in “Of Mice and Men.” In every other chapter, it seems, Danza’s been brought to tears by his students.
“I’m hooked up to that school. I can’t let it go,” said Danza, who has stayed in touch and helped organize a fundraiser when the school faced budget cuts.
His takeaways aren’t surprising. Teachers must spend too much time teaching to tests. Too many parents aren’t involved. Our culture doesn’t sufficiently stress education.
“I’ve got no problem with the kids on ‘Jersey Shore.’ Hey if I was 22 and you told me, ‘Go down to the beach and I’ll film it and pay you,’ I’d be afraid to see that footage,” Danza said. “We have to admit and say that it is a factor that is causing some of the problems. If the culture celebrated smarts and excellence in school as opposed to hanging out at the shore or being a basketball star, we’d have better schools.”