By Tony Danza
Crown Archetype, 2012
Reviewed by Janine Kitson
This charming book describes a first year teacher who late in life decides to switch career from being a New York television celebrity to follow his dream of becoming a teacher. Tony Danza’s book is about his one year teaching English in a large, poor, inner-city Philadelphian high school.
This warm and moving account shares with honesty what it feels like to be a first year teacher — exhilarating, inspiring, challenging, exhausting and deflating. It describes the American education system that is inequitable, underfunded, where teachers are poorly paid with no job security, and if a school’s test scores are not up to “standard” teachers lose their jobs.
Despite becoming a teacher through the insidious Teach for America program, sending his children to private schools and a life in the New York celebrity lane, Tony Danza has the sensitivity, humility, and insight into just how hard it is to teach and how public education is everyone’s responsibility. He writes: “Let’s be honest: many of us think that inner-city kids are someone else’s problem. But America’s public school kids are our kids, too, and these kids are going to grow up to form the greater part of America’s adult population. What America looks like 10 or 20 years from now will depend a lot on whether these kids are educated or not, happy or not, successful or not. How do we sustain a great country without education?”
Tony shows compassion to his many challenging students — those slipping behind, those with anger issues, those who are truants and those on the cusp of a jail sentence. Their stories include abuse, abandonment, violence and poverty.
It is a pedagogically rich book as Tony shares his journey on becoming a wiser teacher. It takes failures before he learns how to engage his students in meaningful learning. It takes time before he learns how to cope with students who might otherwise text, yawn or find a way to humiliate him. When he initiates a teacher talent quest, he is overwhelmed by students’ appreciation and recognises it is far more authentic than anything he experienced as a Hollywood actor.
It’s a delightful book about the joys and challenges of teaching and how it is often the small achievements that make the job so rewarding. The book reveals those wonderfully funny moments when teachers, with the best of intentions, face situations that invariably go wrong.
Tony Danza condemns the gruelling and unmanageable teaching loads that make teaching such a difficult and overworked profession. He also rejects the testing agenda that is unrelenting, humiliating, flawed, soul-destroying, exhausting and counterproductive. Rather than teaching to make learning fun, meaningful and engaging, it forces teachers to teach to a narrow test.
There are, however, many weaknesses in the book. Danza was able to become a teacher through the five-week Teach for America program. He fails to critique its destructive politics. Teach for America is a corporate-backed, market-driven, high-stakes testing-orientated movement that supports privatised charter schools and mass teacher sackings. It supports “small government”, which means cuts to public education. Danza fails to see the malevolence of wealthy philanthropic elites who fund Teach for America but oppose paying higher taxes, thereby entrenching poverty for disadvantaged communities. He does not challenge exploitive economic policies that demand low salaries and insecure work and how this negatively influences the lives of young people and their families. He does not acknowledge how Teach for America has been instrumental in the mass sackings of experienced teachers.
Despite these shortcomings, Tony Danza’s story will resonate with many teacher readers, particularly those who start their careers with enthusiasm, commitment and optimism, wanting to make a difference. He finishes his teaching year knowing that it has been one of the most worthwhile achievements of his life. He does not, however, continue being a teacher. Teaching is just too hard.
The book ultimately is a statement about how society needs to support and respect teachers and a celebration of the noble work they do.
The book is available for borrowing from Federation's library.
Janine Kitson is on leave without pay.