Don't be surprised if the nation's teachers start a fan club for actor Tony Danza. Unlike the countless policy makers and talking heads who offer up suggestions for improving education without ever teaching a day in their lives, during the 2009-2010 school year the actor ditched Hollywood for a gig teaching tenth grade English at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. Now Danza's written a book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, about the experience.
What's Danza apologizing for? He readily admits that he wasn't the best student in school, and since he'd earned a degree in history education, he wanted to make a difference. Perhaps he's also regretting the disrespectful assumption too many in our society make: educators don't really want to work hard and are incompetent.
During his year in the classroom, Danza dealt with the tough challenges so many teachers face: Over 60 percent of Northeast's majority minority student population are economically disadvantaged and the year Danza taught only 58 percent of his eleventh graders scored proficient in English on the state test. Danza also had to figure out what to do when half of his class failed their first quiz, when students skipped class, got into fights, and got busted for cheating.
"The question I still wrestle with" writes Danza in an op-ed for USA Today, "is 'in the midst of a tough economy and continuous budget cutting, how do we send a message to students that being in school and making the most of their time there is important?'" Danza says his experience taught him that "teachers have no problem being held accountable by parents. In fact, they crave parent involvement."
What teachers need parents to do, says Danza, is "persuade their sons and daughters to take part in their own education." That can't happen, though, if parents don't get involved. "There were evenings when, as an English teacher hosting an open house for parents, I stood mostly alone," says Danza. And, although he heard plenty about how teachers need to engage students, "kids have to understand that it’s their responsibility to do well—no matter who their teacher is or the quality of their school."
While Danza raises good points—we do need students and their parents engaged in learning—there's also the reality that the industrial model our schools operate under squashes their creativity and enthusiasm. Instances like that of Jada Williams, the 13-year old eighth grader from Rochester, New York who was driven from her school after her English teacher didn't like her essay where she detailed how overcrowded classrooms and worksheet-heavy instruction create an experience akin to slavery, also make clear that racial discrimination is still a very real problem in our schools.
Ultimately, what we don't want is to waste our time pointing fingers and assigning blame. Danza has clearly had enough of teachers shouldering the responsibility of fixing every woe facing schools. Indeed, if we really want to improve education, what we'll need is a commitment from everyone—teachers, students, and parents—to make it happen.