As actor Tony Danza describes in his new memoir, his year of teaching high school demanded as much empathy and improvisation as any role on stage or screen.Tony Danza has played to national TV audiences and packed Broadway theaters. But without a doubt, his toughest audience was the 26 sophomores in his English class during his year teaching at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School.
Danza’s first semester was captured on the short-lived A&E reality show Teach; only six episodes aired in fall 2010. Now, he recounts the triumphant highs and excruciating lows of the entire school year in his engaging new memoir, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High (Crown Archetype, $24).
“When the camera crew was there, I was worried I would lose my authority. ‘He’s just part of a show; who’s going to listen to him?’ ” Danza tells American Way. “All the good stuff happened after the camera crew left. I was home. I finally felt like Mr. Danza in the classroom.”
Danza draws on far more than his dusty college degree in history education to engage his pupils and convince them that Steinbeck and ?Shakespeare are as worthy of their attention as Snoop Dogg and Snooki. Scavenger hunts, poetry slams, boxing lessons and a Broadway field trip all help to win over his wary students. “The students walk in and expect you to just pour in the knowledge, that they don’t have to do anything,” he says. “They need to understand that it’s not just the teacher’s job; it’s their job too.”
Despite extensive prep work for the role, Danza still found himself overwhelmed — not just by the increasing administrative demands on educators but especially by the emotional toll of the classroom. He realizes his own history as a high school “discipline problem” pales in comparison to the sexual abuse, street violence and solo parenting shading his students’ behavior.
“In the beginning, I cried for myself because I was scared that I bit off more than I could chew,” he says. “But later, I was crying for the kids.”
When all of his students graduated this June — all but two with college plans — he shed a few more tears, this time out of pride.