In 2008, I was both excited and petrified to start my first year in the Philadelphia School District — and at the orientation for new teachers, I found myself sitting next to Tony Danza.
The star of Who’s the Boss? was filming his first year for a reality show, true, but he seemed just as nervous as the rest of us. He’ll read at the library this week from his new book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I’ve Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High (Crown, Sept. 11), which details the heartbreaking, mortifying (Danza is incredibly honest about the multiple times he broke down and cried) and beautiful moments he experienced in his year here. They’re moments I recognized.
Tony Danza: So how do you feel now? Because it’s one of the things I feel I missed, the opportunity to grow.
City Paper: I’ve taught ninth-grade English for three years in a row, and it gets so much better. Yesterday was actually the first day of school here — do you feel nostalgic at all?
TD: The kids that I taught graduated in June and I was the commencement speaker, and I had a fundraiser there in March, which was a product of the budget cuts that laid off the school nurse. So I’m still sort of connected to the school, and I do feel that — and it’s exacerbated by the fact that I’m out promoting the book.
CP: I interviewed at Northeast, but ended up at Edison, where we had our orientation.
TD: That’s exactly where we did it! What an experience — all those new teachers, all those people! I felt like we could take over the world.
CP: I was so scared — my first day was hard. You had a hard first day, too.
TD: Yeah, but I have to make sure people understand: I was crying with one-fifth the load! [Danza taught one class period per day, whereas most teachers have five or six.] What was the hardest part of your first day?
CP: Well, you mention in the book that you went completely off the lesson plan — my first day, I was gripping my lesson plan and reading off it like a script.
TD: [Laughs.] I wonder which is worse? Being an actor, I go off-script a lot. And that was my big problem: I talked too much. I asked a question, I didn’t even give them a chance to answer it! It was really hard at first to understand that you had to get them to do it.
CP: One of my biggest weaknesses was trying to do it all myself.
TD: Bingo! I had a little bit of a breakthrough when we were doing creation myths — David Cohen, the guy who worked with all the first-year teachers, told me, “Let them do it! Stop doing it for them!” So I paired them up, and they came up with their own myths. And I saw it happen! That thing that happens when they get into something that they really like!
CP: It’s a great feeling.
TD: I danced out of the class that day. It was after a particularly problematic day; you know, after a crying session.
CP: In the Philadelphia School District, it’s commonly accepted that every first-year teacher will cry at some point. It was really brave of you to show it happening to you — as a teacher, I appreciated it, because you actually showed how we feel sometimes.
TD: I had a guy write me a letter — he thought he was the only one, every day after school he closed the door to his classroom and cried at his desk. … The problem with being a teacher is that there is so much pressure. You’re not just doing a job, you’re talking about these kids’ futures. They get one year with you — it’s not like they can get that year back! So it’s gotta work!
CP: At one point in the book, you ask your friend Bobby, “How long does it take? To become a good teacher?” I wonder that all the time. If you were going into your second year now, would you have any advice for yourself as a first-year teacher?
TD: See, I really don’t feel like I’m in any position to give anybody any advice, because I only did one year. There was a guy in the book who was supposed to retire; he had 36 years and decided to do a 37th. I asked why, and he said, “Because maybe this year I’ll get it right.”
CP: That broke my heart a little bit — it’s so true.
TD: The good thing about teaching is that there is another day, there is another year. Expect it to be tough. Expect it to get to you — if it’s not getting to you, something’s wrong.
Sat., Sept. 15, noon, free, Free Library, Central Branch, 1901 Vine St., 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.
Also in our Fall Arts Guide:
- Frank Furness designed PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building on North Broad in 1876.
- Fall Arts Guide: Rock/Pop
- Fall Arts Guide: Theater
- Fall Arts Guide: Visual Art
- Fall Arts Guide: Jazz
- Fall Arts Guide: Dance
- Fall Arts Guide: Classical
- Fall Arts Guide: Roots