I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had is television, screen and stage star Tony Danza’s absorbing account of a year spent teaching tenth-grade English at Northeast High Philadelphia’s largest high school with 3600 students.
Entering Northeast’s crowded halls in September of 2009, Tony found his way to a classroom filled with twenty-six students who were determined not to cut him any slack. They cared nothing about “Mr. Danza’s” showbiz credentials, and they immediately put him on the hot seat.
Featuring indelible portraits of students and teachers alike, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had reveals just how hard it is to keep today’s technologically savvy – and often alienated students engaged, how impressively committed most teachers are, and the outsized role counseling plays in a teacher’s day, given the psychological burdens many students carry. The book also makes vivid how a modern high school works, showing Tony in a myriad of roles – from lecturing on To Kill a Mockingbird to “coaching” the football team to organizing a talent show to leading far-flung field trips to hosting teacher gripe sessions.
A surprisingly poignant account, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny but is mostly filled with hard-won wisdom and feel-good tears.
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About the Author
TONY DANZA, before he grew up and starred in such classic TV series as “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” as well as on Broadway, was a “discipline problem” at Long Island’s Malverne High School, for which he is deeply apologetic. These days, he divides his time between New York City and Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
You’re Fired, Go Teach!
Room 230. First day of school. I unlock the door and try to wrap my head around what’s about to happen here . . . in my classroom . . . where I’m Mr. Danza. That Mister alone takes some getting used to—a whole different kind of Boss. At Philadelphia’s Northeast High, only my fellow teachers get to call me Tony. School rules. This gig isn’t acting, it’s for real. Real kids, real lives, real educations at stake. And any minute now my students are going to walk through that door.
Engage the students. The mantra that was drilled into my head during teacher orientation starts playing like a bass drum in my chest. One of my instructors rolled her eyes when she said it, and then she added, “No one ever seems to question why the burden is all on the teacher to do the engaging, when we ask so little of the students, or for that matter, their parents.”
Her vehemence startled me. “I never thought of it that way,” I told her.
“No,” she said, not unkindly. “But I promise, you will.”
It’s stifling. I turn on the AC—a luxury I’m grateful for—and double-check my room. It looks as good as I could possibly make it in my week of prep. The institutional beige cinder-block walls and the desktops are scrubbed so clean even my mother would approve. I dusted the bookshelves, squeegeed the windows, and installed dispensers of hand sanitizer by each door—an attempt to defend my students against the swine flu epidemic that’s threatening the nation. This last touch, I hope, will show the kids that I sincerely care about their well-being and not that I’m a germ freak. I’ve also decorated the walls with fadeless blue paper and encouraging banners, which say things like the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary and my favorite, no moaning, no groaning—if only I could follow that advice myself! Above the blackboard, I’ve glued big letters to spell out: take part in your own education. And on the wall are listed my class rules:
1. BE here, on time and prepared
2. BE kind
I try to shrug off the advice of a veteran teacher I met last week at Becker’s, the local school supply warehouse where I bought all this signage. He was a sweet-faced guy, moonlighting as a checkout clerk to make ends meet—so much for those “outrageous” public school salaries—and he immediately marked me as a novice. His tip-off was the huge pile of educational decorations I was charging to my own credit card. Philadelphia teachers receive only a hundred dollars each for classroom supplies for the whole year; obviously I was way over budget in more ways than one. So this veteran offered a tactic to save my skin. “Never smile before Christmas,” he warned. “Smiling puts you at their mercy, they’ll eat you alive.”
Fortunately, before I can dwell on this memory, the bell rings. Actually, it screams like an air-raid siren. But then, the strangest thing happens. Outside, the hallways are bedlam, but in my classroom dead quiet reigns, even after the first student walks in. She’s small and neat, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a plastic headband. She bounces a little on the balls of her feet and grins at me, but doesn’t make a sound.
I have a big mouth, which is how this whole thing got started.
In 2007 I was two years into my dream job—hosting a live, one-hour TV talk show in New York City. It aired from ten to eleven every weekday morning on the ABC network, right after Live! with Regis and Kelly and before The View. I felt like the king of New York. The show not only gave me a window into the true complexity of the greatest city on earth but also offered a platform for me to do some serious good. One of my favorite segments was our “School Room Makeovers.” The producers would enlist charitable corporations to donate much-needed school equipment, and then we’d take a camera crew into an impoverished school and remake the science lab, gym, art room, or reading room. When we learned that the music department in one school had just six instruments for four hundred kids, we approached Casio and C. G. Conn and acquired keyboards and brass instruments. We rebuilt and reequipped the music room, and that school now has a fine jazz orchestra. Given half a chance, I’d have leveraged my show to rebuild all the public schools in New York. Unfortunately, my show was canceled.
Now just about every TV actor has had a show canceled—it’s a basic occupational hazard. But this time, for me, was different. After the show ended, my wife and I separated. We’d been married twenty years. And only the youngest of my three kids was still living at home back in Los Angeles. Plus, I could smell sixty.
Sixty’s over the speed limit. My dad only lived to be sixty-two. Suddenly, it hit me that I could be running out of time, and this realization made me begin to consider a serious change of direction. I thought about the reasons I’d been so proud of that talk show, and it occurred to me that when we made over all those schoolrooms, I wasn’t only trying to address the problem of underfunded schools, but also reaching for a thread that ran all the way back to my own school days. My original career plan in college was to teach. I actually have a degree in history education. After graduation I got rerouted, first into boxing, then into acting, but it was no accident that my character on Who’s the Boss? ultimately became a teacher. I was still trying to live out my early vocational dream. But playing a teacher on television could never compare with teaching for real. Maybe now was the time to stop, regroup, and get back to the road not taken. The classroom wasn’t yet closed to me. I could still make a contribution. Sure I could. Do something that would make my own kids truly proud of me.
What kicked me into gear was a documentary made by Teach for America, the organization that trains college graduates to teach in rural and urban public schools. The film focused on some TFA teachers in Baltimore, Maryland, and culminated with a rousing school production of Bye Bye Birdie. As a song-and-dance man, I can always be had for a musical, and the energy and passion of the kids in the film were truly impressive. But what throttled me was the camera’s pan to the audience as the cast was taking a bow at the end of the show; there were maybe seven people there to applaud those kids. As a parent, I’d volunteered to help out on numerous theatrical productions with my own kids; in the private schools that they were fortunate enough to attend, I’d never seen a performance that did not have a packed audience of family, friends, and teachers. But in this inner-city school, no one was there to support the kids. That really got to me. I wanted to help.
I looked into TFA and learned that, technically, I qualified to apply. To be honest, though, the prospect of beginning a third-act career scared me almost as much as it attracted me. Could I really do this, after so many years? I didn’t know. But if I told my friends this was what I was planning, then I wouldn’t let myself back out. So I opened my big mouth.
In New York, I mentioned my youthful dream to the executive producer of my former talk show. He’s young, hip, and savvy, and when I said I was thinking of giving up acting to become a teacher, he didn’t miss a beat. “Ever think of doing that as a reality show?”
At first the idea repelled me. I’m no fan of reality TV in general, and the idea of a reality series about teaching immediately put me off. I wanted to teach instead of acting, not in combination with showbiz. Besides, this would involve actual students and their actual education. As far as TV producers are concerned, the sizzle of drama is always paramount, and that goes double—or maybe triple—for reality TV producers. A classroom reality show was bound to compromise the students at best, or at worst exploit them. Either way, I wanted nothing to do with it. “Even if it received great ratings,” I told my friend, “if the students didn’t get the quality of teaching they needed and deserved, then I’d consider the whole exercise a failure.” And there’s no way the kids would come first in a TV show. Ratings always come first. As far as I was concerned, this was a nonstarter.
A few weeks later, though, I got a call from Leslie Grief, another producer friend. Les has had a string of reality TV hits, so I should have known that when I mouthed off to him about making teaching my next act, he, too, would suggest, “That might make a good TV show.” I told him that even if we could do it as a TV show, which I didn’t think we could, we’d never sell it to a network. Never say never to Leslie Grief. Before hanging up, he bet me he could sell the idea to a network in the next half hour. Twenty minutes later the phone rang.
“Congratulations,” Les said. “You owe me. We’re meeting with A&E next week to discuss your new show about teaching.”
My new show about teaching. I had to admit, I liked the sound of that. My resolve began to waver. If we actually could find a way to do this responsibly, the show had the potential to produce a win-win-win-win—for students, teachers, the network, and me. Not only would I have the chance to test myself for real in the classroom but we could showcase what teachers are really up against in public school systems today, and what kids really need that they are and aren’t getting from our schools. Perhaps most important, if I succeeded, we might inspire others to join the teaching profession.
The kind of show I envisioned would be risky for the network, but I was convinced that the real lives of real kids combined with my hyperreal flop sweat as a novice teacher would make for more than enough drama. Responsible reality. That actually had a good ring to it.
We met with three A&E execs at Sparks Steak House in New York. It was a meeting I welcomed, but as we were seated, I remembered that a famous Mafia hit had occurred just outside. I hoped this place wasn’t jinxed. A steak house for lunch would not have been my pick in any case. But Les was in high gear, and when Leslie is on, he’s the reincarnation of P. T. Barnum—a consummate salesman and promoter.
I let him grease the wheels but interrupted to spell out my ground rules before he got carried away. The norm in reality TV is to soft-script the show, which means that you write the story line first, then induce the characters to make the story happen in “reality.” It’s easier and more cost-effective than a straight documentary approach, but I wanted nothing to do with that. “In our show,” I said, “the kids have to come first, no matter what production problems we encounter. We shoot it like a documentary. No scripting. No forced or fake drama. We turn on the cameras, see what happens, then create the shows out of the footage, not the other way round.”
The executives exchanged doubtful glances. My vision was by no means an easy sell, but Les made sure the execs understood we were dealing with a hot commodity. “Education is all we talk about in this country,” he said. “Every presidential candidate promises to be the ‘Education President,’ but the problems keep getting worse. Why aren’t our kids learning? That’s our topic.”
While slicing into our steaks, we jabbered some more about the positive takeaways from the show. The conversation was more animated than I’d expected, and when I sensed that these executives could be won over, I sprang my closing argument. “One more thing,” I said. “Let’s be honest. Many of us think that inner-city kids are somebody else’s problem. Your kids and mine go to private schools and are doing just fine. But America’s public school kids are our kids, too, and these kids are going to grow up to be the majority of America’s adults. What America looks like ten, twenty years from now will depend a lot on whether these kids are educated or not, happy or not, successful or not. How do we sustain a great country without education?” I paused for a second, then felt unexpected emotion as I said, “I think we. . . could actually help.”
The network execs looked at each other. Then their senior guy leaned across the table and skewered me. “Can you keep spouting that dewy-eyed passion in front of a classroom full of unruly teenagers who want to eat you for lunch?”
I grinned. “I’ll make a bet with you. Win, lose, or draw, I’m going to be in that classroom for at least one solid school year.Cameras or no cameras, once I’ve got students who expect me to teach, I’ll be there every day, and I’m going to try my hardest to be the best teacher they ever had. That’s what I mean by responsible reality.”
It took several more meetings and a lot more spouting, but in the end, the network executives assured me that we would do it right, and I vowed to hold them to their word. Whether I had what it takes to actually teach was a whole other issue.
“What’s your name?” I ask the grinning young lady now standing in my classroom doorway. Learn your students’ names, I remind myself as the first-day jitters take hold. It lets them know you care.
“Nakiya.” She shakes my extended hand with a look that tells me I’m already violating protocol. Nuh-kie-uh, I repeat to myself, and decide to call her Nicky.
A big kid named Daniel saunters in next. He oozes cool, and when I direct him and Nakiya to the hand sanitizer dispensers, he raises both eyebrows as if I’ve just belched. “Do me a favor,” I cheer him on. “Whenever you come in, sanitize your hands. Now take a seat and write your name on the card there on your desk.” Then, as Daniel and Nicky reluctantly obey, I position myself at the door to welcome the rest of the class and ask them, too, to sanitize before we get started. The kids all exchange the same look: this guy is nuts, a germ freak, no less.
Table of Contents
1. You're Fired, Go Teach
Teachers Lounge: Lesson Plans
2. Ignorance Is No Excuse
Teachers Lounge: The Real Deal
3. Do Now
Teachers Lounge: Everybody Cries
4. The Half-Sandwich Club
Teachers Lounge: Bobby G
5. Making the Grade
Teachers Lounge: No Fear Shakespeare
6. Never Smile Before Christmas
Teachers Lounge: Northeast's Got Talent
7. Field Tripping
Teachers Lounge: Gone Bowling
8. Poetic Justice
Teachers Lounge: Happy Hour
9. Our Atticus
Teachers Lounge: Adequate Yearly Progress
10. Spring Fever
Teachers Lounge: Fight Night
Teachers Lounge: The Sons of Happiness
Teachers Lounge: Saving Starfish
What People are Saying About This
“Breezy…Danza is able to shed light on a number of the underreported struggles teachers face.”
“In this endearing memoir, Danza defies expectations…[filled with] refreshing honesty…provides insights into a teacher’s daily life.”
“A witty, self-deprecating, and charming account of how being a teacher extends far beyond the four walls of a classroom. From sweating through his shirt to harboring adoption fantasies, Tony Danza depicts his brutally and beautifully real experience as a first-year high-school teacher. With humor and honesty, he highlights the emotional toll of teaching and describes how one of the most important careers in America is still one of the most unappreciated.”
Erin Gruwell, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling The Freedom Writers Diary
“At age 59 Tony Danza inexplicably chose to become a teacher at a tough, inner-city school. The story he tells is moving, eye-opening, and compellingly honest. Love infuses his work, and he cries a lot. Read this book and you will too.”
Joel Klein, former New York City Schools chancellor
“It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a group of teens and proclaim yourself their teacher. It takes even more to be a good one someone who sees each student as an individual with a unique life story. Tony Danza put himself forward to teach children and learn from them, knowing that the more he really understood these kids the better teacher he could be for them. We easily forget how truly difficult it is to be a transformational teacher and in these pages you can see that’s what he became.”
Rosalind Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of Queen Bees & Wannabees
“Tony Danza is filled with life, joy and the spirit of altruism – which makes him a natural teacher, as well as a perfect witness to the victories and tragedies in today’s inner-city classroom. Like teaching itself, this book is an emotional roller-coaster – but it’s also a sobering account of the perilous state of schools in our poor communities. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the nation’s children.”
Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
“I highly recommend I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had to everyone who has thought about teaching as an encore career – and anyone who wants to know what life is like for teachers and students in American public school classrooms today. Tony’s book will make you laugh, cry, and cheer. It serves as a call to action for every one of us to take a stand and commit to the education of our young people.”
Sherry Lansing, Former CEO of Paramount Pictures and Founder of The Sherry Lansing Foundation
"A great antidote to all those pieces by folks who consider teaching glorified babysitting."
Erin Gruwell, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Freedom Writers Diary (the basis of the Hillary Swank film Freedom Writers), talks to Tony Danza about his new book I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had
(Crown Archetype, on sale September 11, 2012)
Erin: Your book about teaching high school English for a year is so endearing. It's really a love letter to teaching.
Tony: For me, teaching was the road not taken. If you look at my acting work, so many of the roles involve being a teacher. Tony in Who's the Boss? becomes a teacher. I studied history education in college. I wanted to be a teacher. Teaching always appealed to me. Arthur Miller once said, “The best thing you can hope for is that you end up with the right regrets.” I didn't want to regret not trying this.
Erin: It seems like you were on a quest for meaning.
Tony: It was kind of existential, I guess. Why am I here?that was the question. Everyone wonders, What does my life add up to? My closest cousin died at an early age of a heart attack. I remember my mom dying and the day after . . . it was weird, everything was the same. She was gone, but everything continued as it had been. It causes you to reflect on what you're meant to do. We all want to know the role we're meant to play.
Erin: There's a part of the book that seems like it's almost an homage to your parents, to the emphasis they placed on education.
Tony: They were immigrants, didn't finish high school, never went to college, but they knew school made a difference. My father died at sixty-two, when I was thirty-two, just as I was beginning to feel, “Hey, maybe he knows something.” I thought about that when I got into the classroom. A lot of kids don't have fathers around, and I felt a certain responsibility. I myself exerted little effort back when I was in school. I just got lucky. I very easily could have been lost. I felt, “These kids need to hear the message: Pay attention, school is important, this is something you must do.”
Erin: In urban areas, there often aren't a lot of strong father figures. How did it feel when you were teaching that lesson on To Kill a Mockingbird and the kids called you “our Atticus”?
Tony: Midway through the year, one girl, Nikiya, actually started calling me Dad. The character Atticus, maybe our greatest hero (whom Gregory Peck played in the film), represented someone who cared, who listened, who wouldn't yell. I got worried that I wouldn't be able to live up to the image my students had of me. These kids have such huge needs. It's scary.
Erin: You had this dual realityyou had both your classroom family and your family back in L.A. What was it like balancing both?
Tony: I hoped the teaching thing was something my wife and kids would be proud of. Especially my kids. That was a secret motivation, I guess. But there was also something else I hoped my kids would get out of it. They're privileged, having been brought up in L.A. with access to a lot of nice things. So, although they'd go to the mission to help out, get involved in various charities, they didn't have much sense of the types of lives my classroom kids were living. So that was one of my hopes for the project, tooto give them a reality check, show them what life could be like.
Erin: Anyone who reads this book will feel that you're really committed to teaching as a craft, that you think of it as a noble profession.
Tony: It certainly is. It's maybe the most important job there is. There came a point where I thought, Wow, this is really tough can I even stick out the year? But then you see the commitment of the people around you, the long days some people are putting in, the responsibility they have of dealing with 150 kids each (my load wasn't at that level) and so much need. From that perspective, one year doesn't seem like that big a deal. It's funny, though, at night I'd be totally stressed, thinking about the day I'd had, what I'd failed to get right. But somehow in the morning, I was all pumped up, I had this newfound verve. And then the first kid I'd see at school, the very first kid, I would smile at him and say “Good morning” and he would scowl at me, and when that happens, you just have to recommit.
Erin: What was the toughest part of the job?
Tony: Well, kids walk in and right away they're broadcasting this message: Engage me. They tend to not take responsibility for their own education, though eventually most of the kids in my class did, which was wonderful. I think the toughest part was that there's a certain catch-22. Kids will not work for you unless you show that you like them. But once you show them that, they open up to you in a big way. They tell you secretssometimes heartbreaking secretsand then what do you do?
Erin: Did you actually cry in class?
Tony: Oh yeah. At first it was a crisis of confidence. I was scared out of my mind that I would fail the kids in the only tenth-grade English class they would ever have. But then it morphed and I began crying about the kids themselvesthe problems some of them had to deal with, the way they could make me feel. One minute they'd break my heart with a demonstrative yawn, and the next they'd show me such love that I felt weak.
Erin: Your emotion is very endearing. You don't try to shield it. What about your colleagues? I noticed in the book that many kept asking you how long you were staying. What was that all about?
Tony: When I got there some of my fellow teachers were skeptical. Who could blame them? They wanted to know this was no stunt. The way things are for teachers right now, that would be the last thing they needed. It wasn't only my students who wanted to know I cared. But little by little I had to win them over. Toward the end, I . . . well, I'm not patting myself on the back for this, but some of the same teachers who were the most skeptical were asking me to stay. I remember thinking, Jeez, at my age do I really want to care this much about anything other than my own kids? Anyway, I formed great relationships with many of the teachers. I put on the first ever Teacher Talent Show at the school where the teachers performed, and the next day some of these teachers walked into classrooms and their kids gave them standing ovations. That raised my standing.
Erin: So what's the solution for getting more kids on the right track? What is the big lesson you learned from your year in the classroom and the process of writing this book?
Tony: There are some very big problems out there. The unmotivated student is no longer the exception, and there are many parents who, for whatever reason, are missing from what goes on. Worst of all is a culture that undermines everything you're trying to do in the classroom. But I think trying to find the solution in something that is external to the students may be wrong, or at least not the most important thing. The most important thing is that kids must take part in their own education. We have to convince them. We can't want it more for them than they want it for themselves. That's not going to work. We have to say to kids, “You have one lifethis is your chance.” They live in a world that is different from the one you and I grew up in. Back then, if a kid dropped out, there were jobsconstruction jobs and so forth. You could still have a good life. Not today. School is necessary. It's important. You can still have your dreams, but most adults know that sometimes you have to put your dreams in your pocket and make a life. Taking part in your own education is step number one.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I saw Tony Danza on the Today Show promoting the book and thought it would be a good read for me and my daughter who happens to be in her first year of teaching. Well we both read it and LOVED IT! I thank Tony for taking the time to write this book. So many of his stories have been helpful to her, just knowing that all first year teachers go through similar situations. We loved the way he connected with so many of the kids through the 1/2 Sandwich club and just caring about them personally. You give first year teachers hope! And some days that seems like all you have. Thank you Tony. Job well done, on the book AND in your first year of teaching!
I enjoyed Mr. Danza's book very much. I agree 100% with the statement that every teacher needs an assistant. As a retired high school math teacher of 32 years, the paper work was beyond belief.
Just finished Tony's book and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! Love his style, enthusiasm, and passion for the children he taught. Being a teacher too, I can appreciate his candor, and creativity, in an effort to communicate and instill a sense of accomplishment in his students.
I would love to purchase this book for every BOE member so they could get a glimpse of what it is like in the classroom. Tony Danza goes into teaching with the same dream as all of us, but learns the realities of teaching quickly. Teaching is a great profession, but it encompasses many other skills, as Tony realizes. Although he only teaches 1 block class, he realizes the challenges faced on a daily basis. It is worth the read.
My husband teaches as a teaching assistant at a University. I work at a private school part time but next year I will be starting as a full time first grade teacher. We decided this would be a good book for us both to read and connect to. We both really liked it! At some points it was a harsh and scary view of what a large public high school is like. At other points it was a story about a teacher working hard, sharing in his students successes and failures and being overwhelmed by administrative expectations. Mr. Danza clearly loved his students and battled with the same issues every teacher does... how do you connect with students without getting too close, how can you be a mentor to your students while also saving time and energy for your own family and how do you make a big impact on a little budget. Unfortunately the most important audience for this book, the politicians and parents who question how much money and support to give to schools, will probably never read it.
My world as a teacher in a nutshell. He tells it like it is.
I thoroghly enjoyed this book!!! Recommend it highly.