Danza recounts his experience as a high school English teacher, which he details in his text, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.
Actor Tony Danza
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Tony Danza back to this program. The popular prime time star embarked on a unique journey when he decided to teach 10th grade English at the largest public high school in the city of Philadelphia. That experience served as the basis for an A&E series, “Teach,” and it’s also inspired a new book: “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High.” Tony Danza, good to have you back on this program.
Tony Danza: Thanks Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: You’ve been good, man?
Danza: I’ve been great. I’ve been great.
Tavis: Good to see you. What are you apologizing for?
Danza: Oh, first of all I apologize for not being a great student myself. I think like a lot of people, you look back on your life and say, “Gee, why didn’t I apply myself?” If I would have spent as much time studying as I did conniving, trying to do as little as possible, I probably would have got the As.
Danza: I think that’s one thing. But when I got there and did this and saw what it really is like to be a teacher in a school of over 3,000 kids, 3,500 kids, with 50 languages spoken in the school, Northeast High, there it is, represent, any Vikings in the house? (Laughter)
I saw the extent of what it takes to actually be there every day and try to convince kids who are constantly besieged with messages that tell them what we’re doing in the classroom is not that important. Try to convince them that this little bit of their lives is so important, and that it’s not like it was when I was a kid, that you could goof off and slough off and connive and then go get yourself a job someplace and have a middle class life. It’s not like that anymore.
So try to convince them to learn from my mistakes and take advantage of this little piece of their lives, because it’s going to inform the rest of their lives.
Tavis: What do you think that you most underestimated about what a teacher is up against before you went into the classroom?
Danza: I tell you the truth, it’s unbelievable. There’s a million things. It’s grueling. There’s just so much stuff. But the thing that really strikes me is the emotional grind.
Early on, a teacher said to me – we were up in Yonkers, working, near the Bronx, working in a school up there when I was first working on this, and she said to me, “You’ve got to be so many things to kids nowadays. It’s not just a teacher.
You’ve got to be a mother, a father, a teacher, a social worker, a best friend, a confidant, a social worker.” It’s so much that you have to deal with.
So what happens is is if you’re a good teacher or you’re trying to be a good teacher, you find that the kids, they’ve been conditioned to think that it’s up to you, it’s up to the teacher. And by the way, in the district in Philadelphia, the mantra is “What are you going to do to engage the kids? How are you going to engage the kids? You’ve got to engage the kids.”
Kids know that. They walk into the classroom, they say, “Hey, I’m here. Engage me.” Okay. (Laughter) But what happens is is that – I know, they think they’ll put their head over, you open their ear and pour in the English. It doesn’t work that way.
But what really happens is that now, you show the kid you care, you show them that you care about what happens to them. Well, that gives the kid license to open up to you, and they tell you stories that’ll crush you. I’ve got a couple of stories in there that you go home and you have to sit and just veg to try to come down from this emotional stuff.
A lot of times you even hear stuff that you have to report. You have adoption fantasies – look at the strike in Chicago, just briefly. Eighty-seven percent of all the kids in Chicago are on the free lunch and free breakfast program.
Tavis: That’s right.
Danza: So not only they – they come to school hungry. They’re actually, during the strike they’re still feeding them. They’ve set up a plan that the kids can go and least get the food. So you’re dealing with so many other things other than the curriculum.
I say if a teacher has to teach the curriculum – which, by the way, is a lot. You’ve got to worry about standardized tests, professional development, literacy initiatives and all these mandates from the district because they’re trying to keep the not-so-good teachers in line, and what happens is it sort of hamstrings the good teachers, because they’ve got to put up with all that stuff.
So you have all that. So if you’re a teacher you have to teach the curriculum, all that stuff, you have to teach morals, you have to teach values, and you have to teach, all-importantly, self-control. Because a lot of kids don’t have it.
So you’ve got to do all that in 45 minutes. It’s like, it’s just insurmountable at times.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the teacher’s strike in Chicago, I’ve been amazed – I don’t know if you – I know you’ve been following this to some degree, obviously. You’ve been on a book tour, though. I’ve been amazed at the number of individuals and major newspapers, so columnists, pundits and major newspapers, who in this strike have really given the business to the teacher’s union. People I like and respect, basically, but Nick Kristof gave the teacher’s union the business.
Danza: Yeah, I know, he’s all over the teachers, I know.
Tavis: “The New York Times” gave the teachers the business.
Danza: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I could run names all night of people who have really, really given the teachers in Chicago a hard time. I’m not suggesting they don’t have particular issues that they have a right to raise, but it seems to me though, that something is – and I’m not suggesting either on the other hand that teachers are perfect. There’s some good teachers and some bad ones.
Danza: There’s bad teachers, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. But I’m curious as to your take on this, Tony. It seems to me that something has happened in our culture where teachers, teachers unions, have become the bad guys, and it’s so easy to just knock teachers, so even when they go out on strike for what might be legitimate issues, major newspapers and major columnists go after them.
Danza: And could you imagine how bad it must have been that knowing that we’re in this political climate, knowing that you’re going to suffer an incredible public relations disaster, and you still have to do it because it’s that bad.
Tavis, there’s – I did a fundraiser at Northeast in March because the budget cuts in Philadelphia, they’re trying to close 40 schools, 64 schools. There’s a move to privatize public education.
Danza: The problem with it is that you’re going to end up with a two-tier system. You’re going to have the motivated students and the ones with parents and people who care in one school, and everybody else in the other school. For instance, so they cut the, they laid off the school nurse.
They’ve been – I saw Linda Caroll, my principal, the other day, and they asked her to take another couple of million dollars out of the budget, out of one school. It’s just one thing after another. So you’re left, and you’re sending messages to the kids, you keep telling the kids, it’s so important, this thing.
But meanwhile, there’s no nurse, there’s no shop teacher, there’s no art teacher, so how is it important? When they go to the mall, they see what’s important, because then it looks good.
I don’t quite understand how this happened, but this is what the book’s about. The book is about what I saw. I didn’t see – are there bad teachers? Absolutely, just like there’s bad actors. How’s that, okay? But what I saw was discouraged teachers, and the statistics bear me out.
After three years, almost 30 percent, after five years, almost 50 percent quit and say, “I can’t do it.” When I was in orientation I was with 800 first-year teachers. Trust me, all kids. There were some that were entering the district that were experienced, but basically the preponderance was young kids.
I’m telling you, you could have taken over the world with these kids. They were so determined, it was a calling, we’re going to change the world. Three years later, 30 percent are ready to go. It’s got to be something in the system, and what it is is to me, look, if you give me a classroom of – I had 26 kids in my class.
You give me a good 26 kids, you want to evaluate me? Go ahead. Give me it. But you give me two kids in that class don’t want to learn and they’re going to disrupt my class, I’m in trouble. If you’re going to put it all on the test, I think the test should be part of it, and I think most good teachers do want to be evaluated.
But you have to find a way so that it’s fair.
You can’t have 48 kids in one class and 25 kids in another class and say that we’re going to measure this. And poverty is a big part of it. Now, poverty can’t be an excuse for bad teaching, but teaching can’t be the only thing we do to combat poverty.
Tavis: I think it’s accurate and I think you and I agree on this. It’s accurate to say that you can’t address one without the other.
Danza: You can’t.
Tavis: You can’t address education reform without addressing poverty.
Danza: But we also have to make a decision. Do we – I was in a park the other day in New York and I was skating. I saw a big class of kids walking around, secondary school, maybe sixth, seventh, eighth grade. They might have been two classes. There wasn’t one white kid in the class.
African American, Hispanic and Asian, and these are our kids. We may have our kids in public school, but those are America’s kids, and we have to decide that as a national security issue, we can’t drop out a million kids a year and sustain a great country. It’s just impossible.
When I was there, and don’t get me wrong, I understand we’re all pulling our hair out over this, but I just think that it’s easy to blame the teachers. It’s easy to blame the unions. I’m a union guy, I’ve always been. I’ve been in SAG 35 years; my father was a garbage man, a sanitation man, for the city, a union guy.
If you chart the decline in wages, it pretty much goes right along with the decline in unionism in the country, because I just think – has there been abuses? Have they protected some bad teachers? Absolutely. They made some mistakes, but I just don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Tavis: Have you been hearing anything in this campaign for the White House that makes you hopeful about this issue of education reform?
Danza: Well, I’ll tell you the truth, I think the president with his Race to the Top, I know a lot of teachers are not crazy about it, but I think it did – it was a catalyst to getting some things done. The unions, by the way, even in Chicago, the unions have pretty much gone along with this. They’re trying to – they realize this is happening.
But just figuring out a new way to decide who gets tenure is not the answer, not the total answer. It’s a part of it, maybe, but not the total answer. It’s just it’s so easy to blame as opposed to look at what really is the problem.
Tavis: Let’s talk about some of the students that you had in this classroom that you – one of the great things about the book is you talk about students specifically who are really metaphors for students all across the country.
In no particular order, was it Al G.?
Danza: Yeah, Al G.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Danza: Al G., I changed his name. He reminded me of myself. He’s an African American kid, but he’s very smart, he looked like a man, by the way, he looked like a man. You know, he’s, a mustache, 15 years old. (Laughter)
But just smart as heck, lives in a tough neighborhood, sees violence. His first paper that I finally got him to write, he wrote about a shooting at a basketball game that he was in. Does not understand that this piece of his life is so important.
By the way, I understand that. When I was a kid I didn’t get it. As I closed in on 60, when I got to be 60, it was like somebody smacked me in the head. Oh, one life. That’s all you get. I was raised Catholic, so Catholics, there’s going to be this other thing.
Okay, and if it works out, fine, (laughter) but in the meantime, I got one life. I’ve got to take care of this. So I would try to tell them that, I tried to tell them, and I worked hard with him. And by the way, he did graduate and he’s going on to some vocational training, so we’re happy to see that.
But he was one of those kids who yeah, I’m here. I’m here. What do you want me – you want me to do something else? I’m here. It’s unbelievable.
Tavis: How about Monte?
Danza: Monte was smarter than me. Absolutely smarter.
Tavis: A student smarter than you?
Danza: Oh, absolutely, it was unbelievable. (Laughter) Right away in the beginning of the year, and this is, first-year teacher, you’re really struggling with the curriculum. I think just about everybody is, but I was particularly struggling with it. It was ironic I was teaching English. (Laughter)
But Lewis Black said, “He can’t even speak English.” But anyway, I was talking about the narrator in the story, and he corrected me. The kid was unbelievable. At one point he said to me, “I’m not sure you’re qualified to teach this class.” (Laughter) And by the way, he was about this big. He’s just a little, tiny guy. Wonderful kid, going to Penn and going -
Tavis: Great school.
Danza: It is a great school. Great, really good kid. Oh, he’s so smart. He was really a smart kid. He told me, “The most important thing in my life is school and tennis.”
Tavis: That’s a different kind of intimidation, and here again, where bad teaching comes in, kids might not be on average smarter than the teacher, but they can sniff when the teacher ain’t up to snuff.
Danza: You know what else they can sniff? They sniff when you don’t care.
Danza: They really can tell, and it’s almost a prerequisite now. It’s really kind of sad. By the way, if I had to come up with a solution, I got the solution. I don’t know how to implement it, because until – we can’t want an education for these kids more than they want it for themselves.
Unfortunately for them they’re in a culture that every day sends messages that undermines education. I do this bad joke, but it’s true – I would say to the kids, “Hard work and good behavior will pay off,” and then they go watch “Jersey Shore” and they told me, “You’re out of your mind. There’s another way to do it.”
So they’re getting these messages and they really, particularly in the African American community, you have 70 percent, upwards of 70 percent out-of-wedlock births. One of the best indicators of student achievement is the academic success of the mother in the home, so you don’t have a model now.
So it’s like a snowball, it’s just a snowball. So to me, it seems that we have to come up with some kind of campaign akin to the campaign we used to change the attitudes about smoking in the country or drunk driving in the country, where we changed the attitudes of the country.
We have to do that with the kids. We have to find a way to make them understand that they’re not living in the world that I grew up in, where you could quit school at 16 and then go get an assembly line job and have a middle class life, because the country would afford you that, would give you that.
It’s not like that anymore, and so we have to tell them that this little bit of their lives is so important that without it – and in spite of the formidable and legitimate challenges that you have, the obstacles, you still have to find a way to make this happen.
Tavis: I want to ask you about two more students in just a second, but what you said something I want to go pick up on right quick. I literally just had the book come across my desk the other day and I agreed to have the author on my public radio program, and I’m blanking on the name of the book or the author.
But the book is about the fact that families are the answer to poverty. Now, that’s an argument that the political right makes all the time. You want to solve the education crisis, you want to solve the poverty crisis in America, it starts with family. There is some legitimacy to that argument, let’s be honest about that.
Danza: There’s no doubt.
Tavis: But now that you’ve gone through this experience, what do you make of that argument? Because the minute that the political right says that, those of us on the left have a response at the ready, but there’s some -
Danza: I’ll be honest with you. Look, when I got in trouble in school I got in trouble at home. Now when kids get in trouble at school, the teacher gets in trouble. So the families are important. Family, you can’t – nobody can argue that it would be best if everybody had a family, everybody had caring parents.
When you go to a private school, people say, “What do you get in a private school?” Well sure, you get (unintelligible). You get smaller class size, better facilities, better teachers.
Yeah? The only thing you really get is like-minded parents who have skin in the game and who say to their kids, “Hey, make this count.” We don’t have that in the public schools. So okay, families, but I’m saying that in the meantime, we have to solve this.
I just say it as the only way to do it is to somehow convince the kids, and that’s going to take everybody. Because let’s use “Jersey Shore” for an example, okay? So I had a woman say to me, “I hate the people on that show,” and I have no love lost for the people on that show, but if I were 20, if I was 20 and you told me, “Go down to the beach, act out, and we’ll pay you,” I’d be afraid to see the footage. I would. (Laughter)
Forget it. You want to see something, man, okay? So I said to her, I said – this is a wealthy woman. Wealthy. Very smart and wealthy woman. I said, “Well, what do you think about the suits that you had dinner with last night that put that stuff on? That are reaping billions of dollars from this at the expense of our children?”
Remember, Tavis, when I was a kid – and I’ll be 62 – when I was a kid there was actually a guy on TV who used to tell us at 7:30, “It’s time for all good children to go to sleep,” and we would go to sleep. (Laughter) If you watch the Warner Brothers cartoon, Bugs Bunny would make so many references to history and classical music, you would win “Jeopardy,” almost, after.
That was a time we really tried to nurture our kids. We talk a good game, but then we just try to sell them something.
Tavis: Tell me about Nakia.
Danza: Oh, Nikki. Nakia?
Tavis: Yeah, Nakia. (Unintelligible)
Danza: One of the great kids -
Tavis: I’m sorry, Nakia.
Danza: One of the great kids of all time. She was my go-to girl as far as she was the emcee at all the – we just did a fundraiser down there; I did one in March because they laid off the school nurse. Teachers versus student talent show, and she was my emcee.
She’s a young Black girl. She’s one of the sweetest. She calls me “Dad,” by the way, which just breaks my heart. But she was smart. She’s going to college, by the way. She’s on her way to – or she’s in college right now.
She was a dynamic kid. She was a musician, she had a lot of friends, and then she had a little problem this last year. Somebody told me she wasn’t – but she came out of it and she’s just one of the most wonderful kids. But they all – look, the right has a point. It would be a lot better if they all had families. My point is they don’t.
Tavis: Yeah, so we’ve got to figure it out. Tell me about this group called The Wanderers.
Danza: The Wanderers, okay. So it’s a giant school, right? It’s a giant school. There’s over 200 teachers in the school. It’s 3,500 kids. If you’re smart enough you can go through the metal detector, hit your ID, and if you can keep on the move and you know the place well enough (laughter) you don’t have to go to class all day.
Tavis: Just wander.
Danza: You just wander.
Danza: And these guys don’t go to class. There’s four of them. They’re white as white could be, too. You’ve got to see – they look like they haven’t seen the sun, and they roam around the school, and I would run into them all the time. One kid I got friendly with, because the other three I couldn’t break down. But the one kid I sort of broke down.
But he was a sad case and he ended up in jail and he ended up in trouble. He’s just – I went to – I got the kid and I said, “Listen, come on, you can do this.” He said, “I’m way behind.” I said, “Come on, we’ll do it. We’ll go do it together. I’ll take you around to the teachers and see.” I went to the teachers and they were like, “You’re out of your mind. This kid, we’ve tried.” But I wanted to try.
Got all this stuff together and we were trying to make up his work and trying to get it done, and for a while I thought we might get it, but it’s a tough – the kid had – one of the things they don’t have is a model. I’m a model. Nobody – they don’t know what it looks like to study or to graduate or to go to work, even, so they don’t have a model.
Tavis: I’ve always believed that everybody’s capable of being redeemed. That as long as you live, there’s hope, that you never, ever give up on another human being. That’s my fundamental belief.
And yet, reading your book and hearing you talk about this now, there are some students that teachers just feel cannot be saved or salvaged. When you encounter a student like that – and a teacher should never, fundamentally or theoretically -
Danza: Give up. You can’t give up.
Tavis: – give up. But when you run into a kid who everybody in the school has tried, he just, he or she appears to be unsalvageable, beyond saving, how do you process that emotionally?
Danza: Well, you try one more time, I think, and then you deal with the fact that you have a lot of kids. Somebody gave me this – one of the great teachers there is a woman named Linda. She just retired. That’s one of the things that’s happening in our schools, too, is the baby boomers, they’re all going, and a lot of them are the backbone of a lot of these schools.
New blood is good, don’t get me wrong, and it should be, but that experience -
Tavis: That experience, exactly.
Danza: – is really important. She gave me a plaque. She’s the kitsch monster, the kitsch maven. She had everything. Anything you need for a lesson, she’s got it. So one day as I was leaving she gave me one more piece of kitsch, I thought. It was a box.
I put it in my bag and I got on the train. I was coming home after leaving and I was thinking about this experience I had just been through, it was June 21st, when school ended. Then I said, “Oh,” I realized I had the box, so I opened it up.
In there was a plaque, a little brass scroll on it, just told the story of this giant storm. Roils the sea and washes thousands of starfish out onto the beach. The clouds break, the sun starts to bake the starfish.
Guy comes along, he’s walking on the beach, he sees thousands of starfish. He don’t know what to do so he starts picking them up one by one and throwing them in the water. Another guy comes along, his friend comes along, he says, “What are you doing? There’s so many of them, you’re not even making a difference.”
The guy picks up one more and he throws it in the water and he says to his friend, “Made a difference to that one.” That’s all you can do, is try to throw them in the air, and I don’t know if I got any in the water, but I think I got a couple closer to the water, and I think that’s all you can do.
You can drive yourself crazy about the one you lost, but you’ve got to think about the 50, maybe, that you go. I just think it’s, especially in this time that we’re living in, it’s really, really tough to get them all.
Tavis: We got a minute to go here. How do you think, given your experience, how do you think teachers sustain their hope against what is a mountain of evidence that what they’re doing isn’t really making a dent sometimes?
Danza: Well, the thing is every once in a while a kid will do something to you and let you know that you are. I had a kid, and I taught a lesson about making the best out of a bad situation. It’s my big lesson, because the principal wanted to go on the trip to New York with us. The kids were going crazy.
I said, “Hey, look, she’s going. We can handle it one of two ways. We can tell her we don’t want her, we could hurt her feelings, and she’s got a hell of a memory, or we could write her a note and say, ‘We’re going to New York. We wouldn’t go without you,’ and we’ll have a friend in the principal’s office.”
So I made this lesson about it. I was sitting in my classroom months later, months later, I’m sitting in my classroom grading some papers. A kid walks in the door, he says, “Hey, Mr. Danza.” I said, “Yeah?” He says, “I quoted you today.” I says, “You quoted me?” I says, “What’d you say?” He says, “I told my friend, “Make the best of a bad situation.” (Laughter)
Tavis: And there you have it. The new book from Tony Danza, it’s called “I’d Like to Apologize -”
Danza: Great book for people who are going to try this, or want to do it as a second occupation or beginning, because it’ll let them know when they’re crying, there’s other people crying too.
Tavis: “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High.” Great book, great photo, and some great endorsements. Tony, good to have you back on the program.
Danza: Hey, Tavis, keep up the good – keep up the good work.
Tavis: Thanks for doing this.
Danza: No, no, you’re the best.
Tavis: We’re glad to have you here, man.
Danza: No, no, I’m a big fan.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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