Tony Danza starred on ‘Taxi’ and ‘Who’s the Boss,’ had his own talk show, and even appeared on Broadway. But in September 2009, the affable Brooklyn native embarked on an entirely new career, teaching English to 26 students in tenth grade at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School, a crowded inner-city school.
First aired as a documentary series called "Teach" in 2010, Danza now tells the story of his year as an educator in the new book "I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had." We talked to Danza, 61, about the hardest job he ever had.
FOX411: Why did you decide to do this?
Tony Danza: It was something I’d been thinking about. I’ve always been concerned about the state of American education. We drop out almost a million kids a year and you can’t sustain a great country dropping out that many kids. I’m basically fearful for our future, I have children and grandkids. And then I got the chance to do it because I’m a celebrity and it was like the road not taken. I really wanted to try, and then when I did it, I thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.
TD: It was so much harder than I thought, emotionally grinding. Yes, it’s grueling, it’s 180 days, you gotta be there every moment and you’ve got to show them you care. But the emotional tug of war that goes on is just unbelievable, and then in the midst of that if you feel that the system doesn’t support you, that you’re job is at risk, then it’s a very, very difficult situation to be in. And by the way, you ultimately not only have a responsibility to the kids you have daily, but for their future. They only get one tenth grade, it’s got to count, and they don’t care. You have to convince them, I’m getting a sweat just thinking about it.
FOX411: That’s a hard one, trying to convince kids that their education is important.
TD: The kids are victims of our culture. When I was a kid everything was about nurturing the kid. There was a family hour, there were regulations that said we are nurturing our children, and that’s all gone now. Basically every message they get now is almost antithetical to education. It’s scary, so the kids have that problem. I have the solution (laughs). Listen to me, I have the solution!
FOX411: So what is it?
TD: The solution is we can’t want it more for the kids than they want it for themselves. We have to convince the kids that in spite of the formidable obstacles that many of them face, and I mean it, one in three kids in New York City lives in poverty, and if you think poverty’s not an obstacle to education, you’re crazy. So let’s convince the kids that in spite of those formidable obstacles, and even if it’s a bad school and you’ve got the worst teacher, you’ve got to somehow want it, and it’s up to you.
FOX411: How do parental expectations factor in?
TD: I was poor, but I had parents who said, ‘This is important.’ They expected things of you. You know what you get in a private school? People think you get better facilities, smaller class size, better teachers, bulls**t. You get parents who care. I stood in that school, I’m a gosh darn celebrity and one parent came for parent teachers night. You know what one of the best indicators of student achievement is? The academic success of the mother. If you have 75 percent single motherhood, you have a problem and that no teacher can solve.
If I’m a teacher and I have to teach the curriculum, which by the way is no easy thing, I have to teach the curriculum towards the standardized tests because they’re important for funding and for my job. I’ve got to do all that and now I have to teach values and character and most importantly self control. Try teaching a 15-year-old self control if he hasn’t had many lessons in that.
So we need a campaign, a national campaign, much like the one we used to convince people that smoking wasn’t good for them, like with mothers against drunk driving, where we changed the attitude of the nation.
FOX411: What are your views on teachers unions?
TD: There’s wrong on all sides, but if you look at what’s been going on, the unions have really been trying to work with the administration. I really think they’re are always going to be abuses on both sides but I’m sorry I’m a union guy. I think this country is better for unionism. If you track the downward trend of wages, it’s the exact downward trends of unions.