I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had - With a title like that, this book just screamed that a former teacher such as myself had to read it. With the added subtitle, My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High and the author's name TONY DANZA in big letters, the book almost jumped into my arms. Like most of you, I recognized Tony Danza's name from television, first Taxi, then Who's the Boss. When did he become a teacher? What had I missed? To satisfy my curiosity and mainly to find out what he meant by the title, I delved into this reflection on Tony's 2009-2010 teaching experience at Philadelphia's Northeast High School.
I must confess that I was immediately (and prematurely) disappointed when I found that Tony's dream to pursue a teaching career, something that had been his plan before professional boxing and acting entered the picture, led to a contract to do a reality show for AE called TEACH. I find little reality in REALITY TV and so was instantly prepared for some warped view of American education. Lucky for me, I never saw the 10 episode show and Danza's book doesn't spend much time on the filming aspect. Instead his book focuses on his attempts to reach the students, his need to make sophomore English relevant to this group of inner city kids, and his growing involvement in their lives and in the school's well being. I was delighted to read that his producers were actually disappointed that the daily filming did not have enough drama, not even the field trips to Washington D. C. and New York City. When the producers wanted to insert a "little planned chaos, conflict, and drama" Danza would have no part of it. Yeah! When AE decided to pull the plug after one semester in the school (10 episode, Tony stayed on for the remainder of the year)
What comes across in the book is Danza's earnest attempt to be the best teacher he could be. He tried innovative techniques, but kept to the curriculum as required. Many days he felt his lesson plans go out the window before the tardy bell rang, and other days he amazed even his seasoned colleagues.
I loved when he focused in on what he was teaching - Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the wonderful five paragraph essay. I felt like I had returned to my freshman and sophomore communications classes of fifteen years ago. I wanted to sit down and compare notes with him, possibly swap some ideas. I was envious that he had the AE dollars behind him that made field trips to DC and NYC possible, but realized that such possibilities make his story, although factual, unlike the experiences of most large city teachers. In Danza's defense, he makes clear that his teaching assignment was so much lighter than any other first year or experienced teacher. He was given only one class, a double block English class, probably one fifth the workload of a regular teacher. Plus he had an experienced teacher in the classroom with him at all times - talk about backup. Even so, he writes about emotional overload, exhaustion, and problems keeping up with the bureaucracy and details.
I recognize that we humans share so many common life experiences, especially hopes, dreams, and fears. Despite that, I think there are such vast differences between education in a large inner city and the small rural district where I taught, that they are almost different "animals." I admire those who have made teaching in large schools their niche; I know that I would have been swallowed up by the bureaucracy and sheer size. (Just an aside - In a never ending attempt to fix our largest, and often worst performing schools, our federal government has make a game of new initiatives and mandates that must be followed by all, never stopping to truly understand the differences between small, medium, and large school districts. As a result, small districts have often been burdened with extra costs that out weigh any rewards, while large districts add a few more bureaucrats to juggle statistics. I remain skeptical of how much the individual student actually benefits.)
Here are some important universals that Tony discovered and to which I shout, "You're so right!!"
1. "The students in my class who have the most difficulty reading are not illiterate by aliterate.
Like Howard (a boy in his class), they can read, but don't" So true. I've had some very smart students who really struggle simply because they choose not to read. Over the years, that results in diminished vocabulary,and slow reading skills. Even more important is the smaller exposure to history, ideas, and social issues that they possess when compared to a voracious reader. Studies have showed that fiction readers possess greater empathy than nonreaders. Those who choose not to read are losing out on a lot!
2. The perceived battle of public/parents/kids vs. school/teacher is a destructive one and when it is blown up by the press or the government, it gets only worse. Tony Danza saw first hand how problem students have better chances of overcoming whatever is wrong when the teacher and parent can find some common ground. When parents enter the school zone expecting the teacher to be an enemy, or when they assume that their child could never be in the wrong, not much headway is made. When a whole network of people think the school is an enemy, the community will certainly suffer. Sadly, I know a couple of wonderful younger teachers who made the decision to leave the profession, partly because they gave SO much and could no longer take the negative image teaching was being given in our area. It makes me so sad when I think that people respect their doctors, plumbers, builders, but not their children's teachers.
3. As Tony's year long stint at Northeast nears its end, he learns that a teacher he had expected to retire after 30+ years has decided to return for one more year. When Tony asks why, Mr. Carr answers, "Maybe next year I'll get it right." Every good teacher I've known feels that way, and we've always started a new year with that optimism. Even now in retirement, I often dream of do-overs and new ideas.
In all, Danza's experience makes entertaining reading. A once unmotivated student himself, he recognizes the gifts he was given by a small group of exceptional teachers in his own high school. As he reveals his ninth months in the classroom, he also makes some very perceptive observations about the state of American schools, teachers, and students. If you'd like to get a flavor for Danza's experience, you can read the first chapters of his book on BN or try googling his book. He has done many interviews with news stations and newspapers which have been posted online.