Tony Danza On Why Students Should Cut Teachers Some Slack

Tony Danza; photo by Thinkfactory Media / Barbara Johnston
Tony Danza; photo by Thinkfactory Media / Barbara Johnston

In September 2009, Tony Danza began a year of  teaching tenth-grade English at Northeast High, Philadelphia’s largest high school. That he was an award-winning actor of Taxi and Who’s the Boss? fame meant little to his students, many of whom came to his classroom with stories of challenge and heartbreak. This week marks the release of I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High,” Tony's poignant and funny memoir chronicling the experience. With compassion and humility, he brings his students to life while revealing his own growth through the process of learning to teach “To Kill a Mockingbird,” helping to coach the football team, and organizing a talent show.

We asked Tony what he wishes students could know about the teacher's point of view; here's his take on "Why Students Should Cut Teachers Some Slack."

As a new school year begins, I can’t help but think about how I was feeling as I prepared to try to be a teacher. I was scared. There’s no other way to put it. My fears were justified, but not always for the reasons I thought. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t know that standing in front of a somewhat hostile class would be harder than being on Broadway.

I didn’t know that the students have been conditioned to depend totally on the teacher for their learning. In the district where I was teaching, the mantra was “Engage the students.” Unfortunately, too many of the kids have taken this to heart and think their only responsibility is to show up in class. Many students don’t even do that. In order to “engage” the students, a teacher must show that he or she cares about each student individually. That has almost become a prerequisite for student work.

During my year teaching I would hear kids say, “That teacher doesn’t like me, so I don’t even try.” Now each teacher has around 150 students. The sheer volume of that workload would be overwhelming to most, and what complicates it further is that once the student is confident that the teacher cares, the student feels free to open up about his or her life. Some of the stories I heard during my stint made for long, emotionally draining conversations with myself to try and sort out what to do with this very personal information.

Early on a veteran teacher told me that a teacher has to play many roles: teacher, parent, best friend, social worker, and so on. This was for me the toughest part of the job. And it is a tough job. There are many kids with problems.

To get through the curriculum in the time allotted and to make sure that your students retain most of it would be a triumph in itself, but that’s not a teacher’s only responsibility. The focus on standardized testing and preparing your students to take these all-important barometers of a school’s success or failure takes much time away from what you really want them to learn: to be critical thinkers. This year there will be more budget cuts and many teachers will wonder whether they will continue to have a job doing what they love to do, making a difference in kids’ lives. In spite of this, they will be there every day for their students, whatever their mood, subjugating their own lives and needs to the needs of their classes. Teaching is the noblest of occupations, so much so that “occupation” does not do teaching justice. So to all teachers across the country, I wish you students who want to learn, supportive parents, and great administrations. That would be the kind of slack a teacher could use.