A couple of years ago, Tony Danza, best known as an actor for his work on the classic television shows Who’s the Boss? and Taxi, was eager to try his hand at something far outside his comfort zone. Despite once being a lackluster student himself, Danza had always dreamed of being a teacher and was even a History Education major in college. In 2009, he jumped at an opportunity to teach 10th grade English for a year at an inner-city Philadelphia high school.
“It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be,” Danza tells TakePart, of his teaching experience (which was also captured on A&E’s reality show Teach: Tony Danza). “It was emotionally grueling—and that was a shock. The kids need to know you like them before they are willing to work for you.”
In his new book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High, he explains how—after many false starts—he finally gained his students’ trust. He worked overtime in volunteer coaching activities and field trips, and he made the effort to get to know his students and their particular psychological issues. He also gained an appreciation for teachers that he says he could never have comprehended before walking in their shoes: “It’s just a hard load,” he says of the profession.
Looking at the bigger picture, Danza says he is blown away by the current state of our country’s education system (in a USA Today op-ed he calls it a “national security issue”) as our schools continue to fail on a global level. Yet he recognizes the complexities that are barriers to any quick fixes, especially as people continue to debate whether or not charter schools are detrimental or a worthy choice. “Do we really care about public education? Or should it be a privatized operation,” he muses. “We’re going to end up with two systems.”
Danza says that a teacher once told him that, these days, they have to be so much for their students: a teacher, mother, father, brother, sister, counselor, friend and foe. This is an overwhelming burden Danza feels must be shifted to parents and to the general public so that children are surrounded by an appreciation for education. As he describes in his book, he once had an open house where practically no one showed up. “I’m not blaming parents, but we have to make sure kids know that they are competing with the rest of the world,” he says, citing the high unemployment statistics for high school and college grads. “We can’t want it more for them than they want it for themselves. I’ve been thinking about how we need a national campaign to change the attitude of the nation, just like we have convinced people to stop smoking or cease drunk driving.”
Where once, he says, there were more nurturing and school-based messages, Danza laments the fact that students these days face a vapid pop culture. “They are a victim of a culture that we propagate that sends messages that are apathetical to education,” he says. “ ‘Why study when I can watch Jersey Shore?’ ”
It’s time for parents and guardians to really crack down on their kids. “I think parents need to send the message [to their children] that at this moment in life, you are competing not only with kid next to you but also with the kid in Singapore, and the kid in India and the kid in China,” he says. “And in order to compete, you have to make this count. You can’t have a good time and be a good student. In this sliver of life, you need to make the most of it. That’s your job.”
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.