Tony Danza goes back to school


Mr. Danza was having a bad day.

The laptop acted up. Few students were ready to present their projects, and the group was restless, giggly, distracted. A few snickers erupted when the new reading assignment, the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was passed out.

“Turn around. Turn around. Put your feet this way,” the first-year teacher urged one of his sophomore English students, motioning to the front of the room.

Last year, actor Tony Danza arrived in Philadelphia with Hollywood credentials and a long-ago college education degree but no teaching certificate. With the blessing of city and Philadelphia School District officials, he became a first-year English teacher at Northeast High School and the star of an A&E reality show called “Teach,” telecast date as yet unknown.

Six months in, Danza loves the job. But it’s also tougher than he ever imagined, and sometimes he wonders if he’s done the right thing, he said recently.

“It would be hard in any case, but trying to do it as a TV show makes it even harder,” Danza said. “As a first-year teacher, you don’t always know what you’re talking about. Sometimes you look like a jerk.”

His first week in the classroom, he cried three times, he said. Explaining the concept of the omniscient narrator, Danza didn’t get his facts quite right, and one of his students straightened him out.

Cameras rolled the whole time. He said he felt like calling every teacher he’d ever had and apologizing because he just didn’t get how difficult their jobs were.

1 class, many tasks

Danza -- a veteran of such TV series as “Taxi,” “Who’s the Boss?,” “Hudson Street,” “Family Law” and “The Tony Danza Show” -- has guided his 26 sophomores through units on poetry and social justice, “Julius Caesar” and “Of Mice and Men.” Although he teaches only one class, a double period midmorning, he signs in at 7 a.m. like everyone else. He submits lesson plans, attends daily meetings with his colleagues, and covers others’ classes.

Yes, it’s a show, but it’s also a real 10th-grade English class, a real school year at a real high school in a working-class neighborhood of apartments and rowhouses.

“I just come to work every day; it’s not like there’s a makeup trailer outside,” said Danza, 58. “I iron my own pants sometimes, pain in the neck that it is.”

One of the first times Kelly Barton, Northeast’s administrative liaison to “Teach,” met the actor, Danza was sprawled on his classroom floor with cleaning supplies and a scrub brush. (Danza is a neat freak, and the floor wasn’t clean enough for him.)

“You have this image of what a celebrity is, but he’s not that way here,” Barton said. “When I saw him on his hands and knees, I thought, ‘This is a normal guy.’ ”

And yes, Danza is swimming in paperwork -- student work, interim reports, you name it.

“It ruins my manicure,” he said, laughing, extending his hands. “It’s overwhelming. There’s a lot of rigmarole that teachers are forced to deal with aside from just teaching.”

On a recent morning, Danza started his class with a discussion of the previous night’s cheerleading competition.

Northeast’s squad took second place, and students were crushed.

School supporter

Danza, who often shows up at after-school events to support Northeast students, had attended. He was taken aback by the students’ reaction.

“Sometimes you work your butt off, and it doesn’t pay off,” said Danza, who was dressed in gray pants, a crisp blue button-down, and black Northeast tie. “There should be some pride in what you did.”

Then it was on to the vocabulary word of the day, “compassion,” and the group projects on themes setting up “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which mostly fizzled. He switched to his backup plan, diving into the novel.

In his neat classroom decorated with student work and motivational posters, Danza was energetic and upbeat. Students ignored the cameraman, three techs sitting along the wall, and the microphone cord peeking out of Danza’s pocket.

After class, Danza was philosophical.

“You get a great class, you go home feeling like you just scored on Broadway,” he said. “But I’ll go home after this class and I’ll be sick. You have to have a tremendous amount of determination, because you get up in the morning and you come back again.”

Because Danza is not certified, another Northeast teacher, instructional coach David Cohn, sits in on every class, but Cohn said he rarely needs to inject himself into the instruction.

“It’s Tony’s class,” said Cohn, who also coaches other new teachers. Danza is his own toughest critic, and though at first he relied on performing more than teaching, Cohn said, that’s no longer the case.

Now, Danza is much more able to focus on the day’s goal, and “he works his tail off to prepare lessons,” Cohn said.

“And one thing that Tony has that can’t be taught or mentored is he has this charisma about him, this ability to connect to people. I know there’s a real sense of trust in that classroom. I don’t want to underemphasize that, because it’s a gift.”

Because of an agreement with the production company, students were not permitted to comment. But on Danza’s Facebook page, one did: “I attend northeast high school. Mr. Danza is an incredible teacher as well as an incredible man.”

There are naysayers -- those who say the show could be a distraction, might exploit students.

Danza says it’s right to ask those questions. He does.

“I sometimes wonder if it was the right move,” he said. “Having said that . . . I think I haven’t been a hindrance to the school.”

At first, the idea of a TV show filmed at Northeast -- the city’s largest school, with 3,400 students, half of whom are considered low-income -- overwhelmed principal Linda Carroll.

But now, “Tony is just a teacher here, one of over 200,” said Carroll. “He’s willing to listen, and he’s made remarkable progress.”

Contract extended

In February, the district extended Danza’s contract to teach for the rest of the year, citing good academic progress by his students. Teach Productions Inc. will pay the district $3,500 for each of 13 planned episodes and reimburse it for some expenses.

The company also air-conditioned the library, donated money to the school uniform fund, gave to the band and choir, and put on “ExtravaDanza,” a song-and-dance benefit that netted $12,000 to be split among Northeast and two other schools.

There’s no question that Danza has bonded with the students, from the sunny young woman he helps with Italian homework to the boy he seeks out in the hallway, a young man who rarely bothers to show up at school.

“He’s on the cusp of going into the abyss,” Danza said. “He looks at me, and I think he’s listening, but I’m not sure. But that doesn’t mean you stop.”

The students in his class were handpicked for personality and also for diversity.

“You’ve got third-grade readers and 11th-grade readers in the same class,” Danza said.

Could he see himself teaching away from the cameras?

“I could, actually,” Danza said. “I had two weeks when the cameras weren’t here at all, and they were the best two weeks I had.”

Inspired by Obama

The desire to become a teacher came before the idea for the show, Danza said. He told a friend one day that he said he was thinking of answering President Obama’s call for service.

The friend, now a “Teach” producer, thought Danza might go one step further.

“I said, ‘Tony, it would actually make a fascinating show if we chronicled a genuine journey of what it’s like to be a teacher,’ ” remembered Leslie Greif, an executive producer of the show.

What if a show was honest about a big, complicated urban public school, they wondered. What if it inspired other baby boomers to join the teaching ranks?

Still, Danza worries.

“I want the show to work, but I really want to do right by the kids,” he said. “At the end of the year, I really want their grades to be a little higher than they were last year, and if somebody asked them about ‘Julius Caesar’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ they’ll know what the heck they’re talking about.”

He’s “hung up” with his students, Danza admitted. He could even see himself back at Northeast in some capacity next year.

“I’ve got a bad feeling that I’ll be here,” he said. “I want to see what happens to them.”

Kristen A. Graham writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.