Classroom Notes - 'Teach: Tony Danza' - Season 1: Episode 1, "Back to School"

"Can anyone tell me the meaning of 'omniscient?'"
     I'm not much for reality television programming, but I have to admit that the premise of Teach: Tony Danza, intrigued me. On two counts, I thought it might be a terrible idea, and I suspected I would see: 1) A show that would not really capture the day-to-day work of educators and students but instead focus on melodrama in the classroom, or 2) A show that would get close enough to the reality of schools, but that would give Danza too easy an assignment.  On a third count, I thought it might be a great idea and be, 3) A show that would be realistic and show how practically every teacher struggles to find equilibrium and success in the classroom.  As a television program and as a real look at teaching, I think we might have a promising start, to judge from the first episode.
     Now, I've been teaching for over 20 years, first as in the Project Upward Bound program, and then a variety of assignments in public school, colleges, and educational publishing companies, and I've settled into independent school teaching for the past decade and a half.  My school setting is a bit more genteel here in suburban South Florida than in Danza's urban Philadelphia school, Northeast High, with some 3700 students. At the same time, I teach five periods a day, compared to Danza's one.  I average 75 or so students a year, compared with Danza's 30.  Many public school teachers have well over 100 students each year.  Good schools -- public and private -- provide rookie teachers with mentors, and Danza has one as well.  I've taught all kinds of different courses at all kinds of levels, and this year I'm teaching 10th grade English.  Danza's assignment: 10th grade English.
     My favorite moment in the first episode in almost a throwaway.  Danza is standing in the hallway talking with some students, and a kid walks by and, in full Teen Sarcasm Mode, yells, "Ooh, it's Tony Danza!" and keeps on going.  The celebrity of Being Tony Danza only goes so far in the real world, as Hollywood Tony is brought down to reality by the administrator in the main office for not signing in to work, by the school principal who makes it clear she'll fire him if he can't teach, and, most accurately, by the football coaches and team, as well as his own students, who make the observation that Hollywood Tony is always on stage.  Don't want to read your essay in class?  No problem, Hollywood Tony will handle it.  It's just like a table read!  After a week, Hollywood Tony's kids admit that they're not learning much from Hollywood Tony.  Nice enough guy, but, frankly, they're waiting for Mr. Danza to show up and explain the omniscient narrator so that everyone can understand it.
     The way that Teach's producers have condensed Tony Danza's first week at Northeast, it would seem that Tony Danza is really in over his head.  He's like a some people who, full of noble intentions and condescension for the profession, just show up on the first day of school and think they can "make a difference" simply by, well, wanting to make a difference.  What Hollywood Tony seems to start to realize (maybe) by the end of the first episode is that, first of all, he really needs to know much better the content and skills he's been tasked with sharing with students and, secondly, his being in the classroom is not about Hollywood Tony. It's about the students. It's always about the students.
     The work each day in the classroom is not like performing a show for an audience who will see you that one time.  A teacher will see his or her students for 3 or 4 hours a week, for about nine months.  That's a relationship, so the priorities of an entertainer don't really work.  No matter how awesome a relationship with anyone might be, it's got to be based on give-and-take.  This is what the other professionals -- in one way or another -- keep telling Hollywood Tony.  In the long run, most educators will learn that one needs to be interesting but not necessarily entertaining, to have a personality but not get too personal, to be an expert but also to be accessible, and not to worry at all about being popular.  Don't worry about being liked -- just be likable.  It's better as an educator to be respected for your teaching; the popularity will take care of itself.
     Dramatically, of course, the nine-episode season won't work if Hollywood Tony doesn't struggle on his way -- one suspects -- to becoming Mr. Danza.  The best moments in the opening episode happen when the aura of celebrity is all-too-apparent, as when Hollywood Tony goes a overboard in encouraging the students to use hand sanitizer, or when he's forced to admit he's a millionaire (actually, he's estimated to be worth $15 million), to which he says, "A million is not what it used to be."  Yeah, right.  Equally enjoyable are the many moments when teachers, coaches, parents, and students address the camera -- or Hollywood Tony himself -- and simply say that this little experiment looks like it's not going to work.  And Danza, in his best moments on screen, seems close to admitting that they might be right.
     It's nice to know he's taking the responsibility seriously.  It's enough to make you want to tune in to A & E next Friday night.  I know I will.  I'd like to see Hollywood Tony have an even tougher time, at least for the short term.

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1 comment:

JonnyT1971 said...

I really like your spin on this show. My partner is a teacher and I've recently returned to school to become one, so this show has been interesting to observe. I do find it a little insulting to teachers that Tony Danza basically got to walk in and become a teacher with little training (what next: Tony Danza MD?) But I like the fact that they show him struggling. Considering the beating teachers have been taking lately, I appreciate that they're reminding people that it's not an easy job.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog posts.