By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; C04
For reasons nebulously noble, the TV actor Tony Danza became a 10th-grade English teacher in an urban Philadelphia high school in the 2009-10 academic year. For their own nebulously noble reasons, the school's administrators agreed to give it a try. Of course, the real reason (though all involved, especially Danza, downplay this) is television, which is how we get "Teach: Tony Danza," A&E's seven-episode documentary series that debuts Friday night.
I like the idea, since reality TV viewers tend to see far more hoarder homes and bacchanalian beach condos than they ever see of day-to-day life in America's schools. Those of us who haven't darkened the doors of a public school lately nevertheless feel qualified to editorialize at length about perceived failures therein, based on test scores and what we think we know.
At a grizzled 58, the former pugilist and sitcom star ("Taxi," "Who's the Boss?") is willing to actually go there, moving temporarily from L.A. to Philly. After a summer of new-teacher orientation, he feels ready to teach. It's something he always wanted to do, he tells us, as far back as when he earned his history degree on a wrestling scholarship (University of Dubuque, '72).
Danza is not alone in this desire: Many people daydream of a plan B that involves teaching later in life, and public schools have indeed found some of these older teachers to be innovative and energetic additions to the faculty. On the younger side of the spectrum, some of our brightest graduates from top colleges compete to participate in Teach for America, which trains them in a few short months to teach for two years in some of the nation's toughest, poorly performing schools. Add to this all the buzz about a new, pro-charter-school documentary called "Waiting for 'Superman' " and our culture can often appear to be engaged in a spate of teacher-bashing. Somehow, everyone could be a better teacher except those who've devoted their lives to it.
In "Teach," we're not so much waiting for Superman as we're waiting for Danza to shut up.
He arrives in early September for the first day of classes at Northeast High School -- a massive campus of 3,700 widely diverse students -- and he is all but certain that his winning personality will charm the teenagers into successful learning. (He raps! He tap-dances! He tells unending, tangential stories about his Brooklyn boyhood, his garbage-collector father, his boxing career, his acting career, his marriages!)
The school's principal, assistant principal and other faculty members attempt to disabuse him of the fantasy that he's starring in a real-life version of "Stand and Deliver." He's given one section of sophomore English to teach, under the watchful eye of another teacher who sits in the back of the room. Everyone, including parents, exhibits a healthy skepticism about Danza, knowing full well that his acting résumé has been thin of late.
Danza flails right from first bell. In his first class, one girl raises her hand and suggests that he wear an undershirt. Sweat pours off him in every episode.
What makes "Teach: Tony Danza" worth watching are the teenagers themselves and the glimpses of other teachers who make the place work. Danza, meanwhile, becomes an irritating, whirling, self-aggrandizing bundle of nerves. "I'm actually very concerned that he's not qualified to be an English teacher," one of his students confides to the camera after class.
"I'm not really interested in your off-topic topics," another student tells Danza.
The repressed English teacher in me wants to take the colon out of "Teach: Tony Danza." As his students and colleagues keep telling him, the classroom is not a stage. Danza nods earnestly and agrees and pays that fact all sorts of lip service, but the lesson never sinks in.
Teach: Tony Danza
One hour. Premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on A&E.