I know very little about Tony Danza. I did watch Who's the Boss? (and you did too, and we all remember Angela's power suits), but I haven't followed his career. So I'm not sure what surprised me more -- the launch this month of three new education-themed TV shows or the fact that Tony Danza is the central figure in one of them.
I smirk through the opening of Episode 1, which features a bumbling Tony, Blair Witch-style camera confessions, and a lot of conversation about hand sanitizer. But the students are charming in the way high school students are -- Chloe "likes fashion and smiling," Eric wants to make his family proud -- so I keep watching.
Tony spends a good chunk of his first English class and football practice talking. An instructional coach suggests allowing students to use and hear their own voices and also says students need some silence, some time to think. You must sometimes sit and wait for students, he says.
And that's when I start paying attention.
My mind flashes to 1991 -- my student teaching days. I'm wearing pleated khakis, I haven't had time all day to pee, and Jerry Walker, my practicum supervisor, tells me I'm filling too much classroom space. Kids need a chance to breathe.
I return to the rookie onscreen. Tony can't find his notes on his cluttered desk. He mistakenly corrects a student's perfect response to a question. He's reading and learning material as he's delivering it. Students wonder aloud when Tony "will start teaching some interesting stuff" and whether or not they are learning. We see shots of Tony sweating and crying. Conversation about hand sanitizer is ever-present.
I've been there: the tears, the sweat, the disorganization, the being five seconds ahead of my students with the material, the nerves. Tony says about teaching, "I just cannot believe how it makes you feel." I agree.
Some viewers will say Tony struggles in class -- and has no business being there -- because he's not a "real" teacher and doesn't have legitimate professional credentials. Maybe. But we all know we've got some bad teachers in the U.S. who graduated from established teacher prep programs; having an advanced degree and passing those insultingly easy certification tests is no guarantee of quality.
There are some funny moments -- well-edited student reactions to Of Mice and Men -- and some real moments, like a girl crying quietly at her desk after failing a confusing quiz.
Actually, the whole quiz experience surfaces interesting questions, which the cameras capture. How do you design meaningful and valid assessment? What happens to students who understand and enjoy class material but cannot test well? What do test results reveal about teacher competencies and student learning?
The most interesting scenes focus on student learning differences. In Episode 2, Tony challenges the prescribed policies for students with learning disabilities. Displaying arrogance and inexperience, he has the whole class take his "game-changing" quiz and denies access to a resource room. Maybe the (previously identified) LD students will perform well and realize they don't need extra services, he reasons. Frustrated students vent to the cameras: Tony doesn't get it. Angry school specialists scold/educate Tony and discuss the legalities of IEPs. Meanwhile, Tony is dealing with a gifted student's request for more challenging work. Been there.
My interest waned in Episode 3. Watching someone organize a musical production is only funny in Waiting for Guffman. And although Assistant Principal DeNaples could very well be a Christopher Guest character (watch -- you'll see), that particular plotline lacked humor and drama.
Obviously, Teach Tony Danza is not a rigorous investigation of our education system, and far more affecting and effective portraits of teaching and learning exist (the exquisite To Be and To Have comes to mind). But the show does a nice job spotlighting some of the complexities of teaching and the keen awareness students have of their learning environment. And it feels authentic, unlike School Pride; after one episode of that show I wished I had some of Tony's hand sanitizer.
A&E could have profiled the tribulations of a newbie fresh from Teachers College, but the gimmick of Tony Danza will draw more viewers. For me, Tony's trials amuse simply because they're familiar. Twenty years have passed since my first-year jitters, and I can still feel the sweat.