This excerpt of a post from the Notebook's blog was part of a prize-winning entry for community blogging in a national competition sponsored by the Education Writers Association.
I watched the first episode of Teach: Tony Danza three times.
I must admit: The first time I watched it, I cried like a baby, right along with the 59-year-old actor who is facing his mortality and wanting to travel down the "road not taken" by becoming a teacher. Being close to this age myself, recently retired from 34 years as a teacher, and staring down my own roads not taken, I found myself cheering for him. I cringed as he sweated through his shirt in front of the unrelenting eyes of his 10th graders, and I cried with him as he let his insecurities be seen by a very unflattering camera.
I'm not a big fan of reality shows, but I see how it might be a welcome addition to the public conversation about urban public education as its cameras begin to reveal some of the hidden humiliations and personal challenges that urban teachers face.
One thing needs to be made clear though: Tony Danza was NOT teaching English at Northeast High School. His experience only remotely resembled that of first-year teachers in Philadelphia.
Face it. Most first-year teachers meet with far more difficult circumstances. Take Danza's struggles and:
- add unwelcoming, unsupportive principals who are terrified about test scores and losing their jobs,
- throw in angry students who have not been preselected,
- subtract the ubiquitous teaching coach, the books, and supplies, then
- multiply it all by five – the number of classes that most high school teachers have to teach. Plus a homeroom.
And this only scratches the surface of the challenges faced by first-year teachers.
If anything, what Danza was doing approximates student teaching. Even so, the comparison is a stretch, because student teachers are responsible for teaching three classes while concurrently enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs, taking courses in the evenings after teaching all day. Not only do student teachers not get paid, they must pay tuition to their universities for the privilege of completing this mandatory apprenticeship.
If Danza were truly a first-year teacher, he would have taken (or be in the process of taking) courses in curriculum theory, adolescent psychology, educational philosophy, technology in education, special education, and discipline-specific methods courses. He would have written lesson plans, developed his own curricular units, and had them reviewed by his professors and his peers. Additionally, he would have taken dozens of content courses in American and World literature; Shakespeare and Chaucer; African-American, Latino, and Asian-American literature; grammar; linguistics; and composition, just to name a few.
To their credit, the makers of Teach: Tony Danza did not seem to be playing "Gotcha!" with the students, teachers, parents, and administration of Northeast High School. The teaching coach seemed level-headed and knowledgeable, the other teachers smart and caring, the parents involved and concerned, and the students themselves alive and engaging.
But the most enlightening segments are the small group discussions the students have after class, in which they smartly deconstruct Danza's teaching. They know. After all, they've had ten years of practice reading (and shaping!) their teachers.
This is what the other teachers keep trying to tell Danza. His greatest resources for learning how to teach are sitting right in front of him.