Tony Danza has a new documentary-reality show on “A&E” called “Teach.” Danza apparently went to college to become a teacher back in the day, but was sidetracked by a career in boxing and, later, television. His television career having run its course, he’s now decided to try his hand at teaching 10th grade English at an “urban” high school in Philadelphia. The results for Danza are miserable; for the viewer, however, they’re eye-opening.
I know. You’re probably as skeptical of his motivations and of the authenticity of such a reality series as I was before watching the first episode. But after watching the first episode, I feel comfortable in concluding that it’s genuine for two reasons: 1) I’ve seen Tony Danza act, and he’s not capable of the kind of performance he puts on in “Teach.” He’s nervous; he sweats buckets, and he’s woefully insecure; and 2) so far, he’s an absolutely godawful teacher, the exact opposite of what he probably set out to be. If anything, “Teach” demonstrates how challenging it is to be a school teacher, and how a television personality can’t walk off the streets and pick up a piece of chalk and expect to be revered.
It’s a interesting documentary series, and surprisingly more engrossing than I’d imagine it would be. Danza, at least in his first week of school, is out of his depth. He’s lost; he’s ill-prepared; and like a lot of nervous people, he can’t seem to stop talking. That’s something of a theme in the opening episode: Danza talks about himself incessantly, but instead of celebrating his personality, the series illustrates how useless it is to him in a high-school setting. Most of the kids have no idea who he is, and even the parents of those students are less concerned with his “celebrity” than whether he’ll be a good teacher. He brags about the fact that his father was a garbage man in an effort to relate to the children, but all he does is demystify his already mystique-less celebrity. It’s cringe-worthy, and his antics in the classroom are tantamount to the “Yo Teach!” brand of rap instruction, a ploy he takes up in a later episode. His students are way ahead of him.
Danza is dressed down by the assistant principal within the first hour of class; he’s cautioned by the principal; he’s condescended to by the football coach — where Danza serves as a special assistant — and a 15-year-old student ends up correcting him on on a fundamental literature lesson, all in the first couple of days. For Danza, week one is a brutal lesson in humility. But he plods on, and his intentions feel earnest. He’s trying to reach the children, and the editors of the series are careful to offer the student’s their perspective: They’re skeptical themselves, and when Danza takes to talking about himself, they understandably check out. That, more than anything, normalizes Danza in this setting; he’s no more special than any of the other teachers, and his inability to gain his students’ respect may make him even less so.
I’m not sure what the point of “Teach” is supposed to be, or what Danza’s intentions were in taking on this project, except to gain some cultural relevancy late in his career. If the point is to illustrate the problems with inner-city education, “Teach” is a failure so far. The kids are savvy, bright, and a lot more aware of the world than I was at that age, which probably has a lot to do with being raised in a Philly urban center. However, if the point is to demonstrate how challenging it is to be a school teacher, Danza deftly demonstrates that in the reverse. If you want to reach your students, it’s about listening to them, instead of talking, a lesson that Danza is learning the hard way. Regardless of intentions, however, I’m on board with any series that earnestly attempts to examine the public-school system, even if they have to use Samantha Micelli’s Dad to focus our attention.