Classroom Notes - 'Teach: Tony Danza' - Season 1: Episode 3, "Just Say No"

     The central dilemma for ‘Teach; Tony Danza’ is right there in the teaser: Hollywood Tony goes to the Phillies game to sing the National Anthem, but Mr. Danza admits it: He should be home preparing lessons.

       Act 1, the real resentment is starting to set in.  Hollywood’s talking about singing at the baseball game and how he has to play a date in Atlantic City, and one bright student, Algernon, has checked out.  When Danza’s mentor gives a warning about not pushing it too much, Mr. Danza listens, as he’s starting to do more often.  Mr. Danza says, as so many teachers do, “I gotta find a way to reach that kid.”  And when the mayor makes an official request for Hollywood to serve as master of ceremonies for a charity event, another distraction from the classroom is added.

     In Act 2, this theme of "reaching the kid" informs the discussions between some of the football players, as well as a chat between the head football coach and Danza.  Does yelling at the varsity players work? For some, and not for others.  This fundamental question is abandoned quickly, though, as Hollywood is drawn into rehearsals for the mayor's wife charity show.  Danza brings in a ringer from his showbiz connections to help direct the show, but the high expectations and long hours for rehearsal aren't going over well with the students who've been enlisted into the publicity stunt.

     When a veteran Geometry teacher stops by to deliver a gut check -- "Are you here to act like a teacher, or are you hear to teach?" -- Tony doesn't have a good answer.  Later, during a show rehearsal, Tony tries to explain to his showbiz colleagues, "I get up at 4:30 every morning."  Danza is stretched thin, he's not reaching his students, but he won't take the time to figure out what he needs to do make those little adjustments and accommodations to make a class work. It takes time.

     For most educators, teaching is not the kind of job where you can stroll through the door at the first bell and figure it out as you go along.  You have 40, maybe 50 minutes to get through your lesson for the day.  Preparation for that lesson might involve lecture notes, slides or transparencies for projectors, video or audio playback, handouts or worksheets, or even rearrangement of furniture or the setup of special equipment or materials.  When the students enter classroom, if they arrive on time, they have to settle, be counted, and get out their own materials. One of the subtle skills a teacher develops is how to get a quick read on the mood of the group and do a survey of each student should anyone be out of sorts or potentially disruptive or distracted.  Even if you’re good, you still lose the first five minutes of class to “getting started.”  Most teachers will have five to six sections a day, with 20 to 30 students in each section.  Most teachers will have at least a couple of preps, which means you have to prepare lessons for a completely different courses – 10th grade English, maybe, and Journalism.  If you coach a team or lead a student activity, there’s still more prep time.  Most experienced, professional teachers I know arrive about an hour before the start of classes every day.

     Although the school day might end at two or three, many teachers offer extra help, sponsor activities, coach, or simply stay in their classrooms doing whatever paperwork and prep they can manage before the exhaustion of the day creeps in.  The intensity of truly engaged teaching – putting out enough precisely directed energy to engage and manage the learning of scores of young people – is a tremendous rush.  It also takes everything you have, as the weeks and months mount up, to build a little model of each student in your head, and, based on that model, to tailor every encounter so that what you have to offer – content or skills – gets delivered to the student just as he or she needs to receive it.  Most of the time, you will receive very little feedback that you’re really reaching them at all.  But you are, though you don’t know it.  You must be patient, hopeful, full of faith, and diligent.  In a few months, you’ll start getting through.  Many people – including parents and the students themselves – are far too ready to give up.  Sometimes, all young people need is encouragement, but teachers have to pay attention.  Danza is simply too unfocused and tired to make his classroom work the way it needs to.

    After a marathon day in which Danza helped coach at a football game, MCed the mayor's show, and then finished up with a performance in Atlantic City, Hollywood Tony's had enough. It's a sequence of hero-making (or star-worship) which, the longer it continues, the more boring it gets.  The following week, Danza has a man-to-man talk with the head football coach and resigns from his coaching position.  He has to focus on the classroom.  And as for reaching his kids, there's a fine moment that closes the episode as Mr. Danza really is humbled by a hard-to-reach student's account of a fight he got into. "When you're teaching," Mr. Danza says, "you actually have to take into consideration what's going on in their lives."  And to make room for those lives, you have to leave plenty of space in your own.

     Hopefully, now that we're finished with Hollywood Tony's commitment issues, we can get on to the drama of the classroom.  That white-haired Geometry teacher had the right angle on the central problem: You can act like a teacher, or you can teach.

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Mark E Hayes said...

What 'Waiting for Superman' Got Wrong -- http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/what-superman-got-wrong-point.html

JonnyT1971 said...

Between the actual teachers who lecture Hollywood Tony on the show, and your observations about teachers on this blog, I'm discovering a lot about teachers and what's involved. I hope you continue blogging about teaching long after Danza's show ends. You offer a lot of insight to the field that people don't often get to see.

BasilBean said...

I appreciate your comments in this post. I have been away from teaching for three years now, after teaching high school for eight years. I loved it, but never figured out how to do it without putting in at least a 10 hour day (and then all of the hours in the evenings and weekends at home!).

What it really takes to be a good teacher is so rarely seen by others outside of the profession. Even in the best of circumstances--a "good" school with motivated students and parents who are involved, supportive administration, well-funded programs, etc.--it is still a unique challenge. I taught at an urban school with students a lot like Mr. Danza's. I had more than 180 students each semester (six classes of 30+ students) and usually taught four different preps. The summer after my first year of teaching I spent the first two weeks after school was out almost unable to carry on a conversation. It was like all those months of having my mind in so many places at once had taken their toll and my brain was on strike!

I wonder how evident it is to others, outside of the profession, how far away Tony's experience is from what it really is like to be a teacher? I was glad to find your blog and that you are writing about it. I'll keep watching this show, but I have to say that it is kind of a painful experience.