He Apologized to Every Teacher He Ever Had: a review

Danza SM

I spent the last three days hanging out with Tony Danza.

Well, not really. But we have been swapping ideas about teaching English to high schoolers and how tough teaching is, in general.

Well, not exactly. It’s been more of a one-way deal. Danza’s been sharing the ups and downs of his year of teaching with me.

OK, it was all in his book. I read his 2012 book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. It was a Christmas gift from my youngest son, one that I had requested.

Interestingly, my 20-year-old college sophomore has come full circle from being proud of me getting a college degree during a time he was old enough to remember it, getting a job as a high school teacher, seeing that job eat me alive, seeing that job take away his and his brothers’ time with me, to understanding why I do what I do and how hard I try to make a difference.

Danza echos this very thing throughout the book, the way teaching is all consuming and how little time and energy teachers have leftover for family. I believe him when he says that in his one year of teaching, he felt the same feelings. There is an awful lot of validation in knowing that it’s not just me. I’m not the reason this job takes so much from me. It’s not that I don’t plan well enough; it’s not that I don’t know when to go home or where to draw the boundaries with students. It’s not that I try too hard to make students feel heard, to give them helpful feedback on their work. It’s a universal thing that teachers wear many hats, and the good ones want what’s best for each of their students.

About the book

Early on, Danza had planned to be a teacher, but boxing and then acting pulled him away from that plan. Finding himself between jobs and at an age when many of us begin reflecting and wondering what if, he began toying again with the idea of teaching. Once spoken aloud, his two careers connected and a reality show was born of the union. Danza made sure though, that his first-born plan was not neglected; in fact, his stipulation was that the teaching, the students, were the priority.

Written from lesson plans, footage from the filming, and his notes – Danza is a very reflective teacher – readers are seated in the classroom before, during and after class, experiencing the jitters about whether the next creative idea to engage students will work, as well as the unbalance that results when students pull those unexpected stunts that endear them to us. Best of all, readers are there with Danza after class to debrief – what when wrong? What went right? How could things have been handled better?

And Danza’s classroom experiences mirror my own. The ambitious, smart kids are in the same class with the less-so, and are frustrated at the non-speed with which the lessons proceed. There are kids who WILL NOT TURN IN WORK. There are the regular tardies with whom you decide to choose your battles, but you know it burns the ones who are there on time. Kids get into big trouble when you think things are going well. Some have fairly sudden changes in demeanor and you wonder what’s going on at home. One day you hear the word guardian and other things fall into place.

He was in Philly; I’m in a mostly rural city in southwest Oklahoma. Northeast has a population of around 3,000, if I remember correctly; my school has around 1,000. Danza mentioned an on-campus police station, but we have our resource officer, who stays moderately busy. They seem like vastly different situations, but so much of the experience he shares is the same, the same.

Some parts too good to be real?

Playing the role of critic, I want to point out where I feel slighted by the book. Danza pointed out early in the chronology that he was against the idea of a reality show, and for good reason. I’ve never understood the popularity of reality shows; to me it’s obvious that much of it is set up. It may not be word-for-word scripted, but real life just isn’t like that, and drama doesn’t neatly fit a plot line convenient for a one-hour production, no matter the editing. Danza refused to let the network set anything up as far as interaction between the students and others on camera. He was adamant, and for that I respect him. For that, executives were disappointed in the product of their footage and the six-week run didn’t have the buzz or the impact they thought it deserved. But while I’m busy respecting that, another part of my mind has begun to wonder about the book.

I was so very impressed with the ideas Danza used to teach certain units (my copy has sticky notes marking pages), engage readers and review for tests; I was almost too impressed. For a first-year teacher, one who hasn’t just come out of an educational program, or networked with lots of other teachers, those were some pretty snazzy ideas. I don’t think the ideas came from teachers he worked with, because he seemed to be the only one setting up scavenger hunts with stations on baseball fields. Where did those ideas come from? Maybe I’m just jealous, but thinking it a bit unbelievable that he did come up with so many creative, successful ideas on his own, it makes me wonder about the credibility of other parts of the book. I’m stealing, regardless. Hollywood Squares for review? You bet.

One of us

So Danza had a little help with lesson plans – I’m assuming – and he had an assistant, and he had a mentor teacher who was usually in the class with him, and he taught only one section. He still went though what we all go through, and he recognized that the other teachers had to teach five sections and didn’t have the backup he had. He did plenty of extra duties and got some new things started. He got to do some things many of us wish we had the time to do. At the end of the year, he saw that he had made a difference in the lives of a classroom full of kids. Isn’t that what we all want?

The prologue of the book was poignant. As if he hadn’t already been forthcoming enough, Danza seemed to lean in a bit closer across the space between us to update me on events since he finished the year at Northeast. He’s kept in contact with several of the educators and many of the students he friended that year. It’s clear as he updates the reader on who’s retired and which kids have done what since he left that he really cares about them. It’s clear as he talks about the real issues in education that he really cares about what is happening and how we can make a difference. For all the chapters in which he said that he cried, the prologue is where I teared up, just knowing someone with a foot outside the education field and with some influence gets it and feels it all as strongly as I do.

One thing particularly true of the book is that Danza connects to the reader. When he talks about his fails and his wins, you feel his disappointment, his exhilaration, just as you yourself have felt it on similar occasions. You want to pat him on the arm or bump fists, because it’s like you’re there in the room with him. It’s like you’ve been hanging out with Tony Danza for the past three days.


About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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