As a former high school teacher, I was a little skeptical about this one. However, I decided to read this book because I would consider myself to be a fan of Tony Danza, and this seemed like an interesting concept: a former TV star becomes a high school teacher and a reality TV show is built around his daily experiences.
Yet as I got into his story, some of the things he set out to do precluded him from having a realistic experience as a rookie teacher. For example, he only taught one class each day. This alone is huge. In my own experience as a first-year teacher, the struggle of keeping your head above water while navigating a full-time schedule is enough to permanently discourage many from continuing beyond the first semester.
He also had access to resources that a typical beginning teacher would not have access to, such as the ability to put together a couple of very nice field trips to DC and NYC. Your average first-year teacher would not even have the time to plan such a trip, let alone pursue the funding, but he pulled it off twice. Impressive! In theory, even his reputation as an established celebrity provided him with some credibility and renown before day one in front of his first class. Your typical first-year teacher is usually an unknown recent college graduate that struggles to connect and engage students and has to learn this skill on top of the academic challenges inherent to teaching.
With all of that said, the more I read about Tony Danza, the more respect I gained for him. He couldn’t help that he was only assigned one class. That was all the school district was willing to commit to him as an unproven educator. The one class that he had was a double period, so in that sense, he taught for two periods per day. He also volunteered for extra duties in the mornings, and he pitched in as an assistant coach. He attended several extra curricular activities in which his students were participating. He seemed to be very visible and available.
He also did not take for granted that the kids (or his co-workers) would admire his celebrity status. The self-deprecating description of his profuse nervous sweating on day one in front of the kids was endearing. He slowly and consistently earned their respect without assuming he had any status among his students. He found himself in trouble several times for failing to meet the expectations of the principal, but he respectfully communicated with her and continuously would strive for improvement. He seemed to go out of his way to come up with creative lesson plans and engaging activities to keep his kids involved and interested in their coursework and in school in general. He also dedicated himself to mentoring kids during his lunch break each day.
Later in the first semester, just as he was starting to gain some momentum, the reality TV show that was chronicling his experience was cancelled. This is the kind of plot twist that would reveal whether or not his motives were pure. Yet he continued to show up every day and do the job, without the potential for fanfare. He didn’t want to quit on the kids. He was committed to their future success. That says a lot.
So, in spite of the fact that he only had one class of students each day, he didn’t take advantage of an easy schedule. He didn’t mail it in. Instead, he devoted himself to having as true of a first-year experience as he could and he did all of the things that a teacher would do if they only had more time: he poured himself into the job and gave it everything he had. He wanted to make a difference. And in that sense, I’d say he had a very successful year.