When I first heard about A&E’s plan to air a reality series starring Who’s the Boss star and The Contender 4 host Tony Danza that followed him as he taught high school English for a year, I was skeptical and suggested it might be a colossal joke. As it turns out, Teach, which debuts tonight at 10 p.m. ET, is a pretty watchable series that is the opposite of a joke.
In August, I interviewed Tony Danza, along with the principal of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School and executive producer Leslie Greif, for a story I wrote that aired on All Things Considered Wednesday (listen here), and was surprised by what I learned, just as I was surprised when I watched the first episode of the seven-episode series.
Although the students volunteered to be in the class, the principal, Linda Carroll, selected a representative group of kids so her famous teacher would have a more realistic experience. (Those 15-year-olds, by the way, were born after Who’s the Boss went off the air.) And while Danza only had one class and had a certified teacher with him in the room to monitor his teaching and give him feedback, he experienced a lot of what real first-year teachers go through. He also struggled a lot, which the series will, of course, play up, just as it’ll emphasize things like his obsession with hand sanitizer during the swine flu outbreak.
But that’s as sensational as it gets. Instead, it’s mostly about how Tony Danza deals with the very real pressures of teaching, and balances that with his commitment. When we talked, the first thing I was struck and surprised by was his genuine passion and commitment. There was no pretense; he even joked about how ironic it was for him to teach English, of all things. He got emotional and choking up twice during our conversation, and told me that he was planning to teach anyway, because it’d been a dream of his and he wasn’t getting the parts he wanted. Only after he mentioned it to a friend did the reality series come about. He really was committed to doing this, show or not.
I think criticism of the concept is still valid, and a series following real first-year teachers might be more instructive, but this isn’t at all jokey, and Tony takes his job seriously. And that he’s a celebrity might get more people to pay attention–and perhaps even teach themselves, which is one of his goals. The show is almost too serious about the reality of this: I’ve watched the first episode a few times, and I could see people being a little bored at first because there’s no outrageous drama, just raw, genuine experience. That said, there are a lot of compelling moments: students mock Tony (a former high school English teacher told me that his celebrity is pretty irrelevant to that, as kids that age do that to everyone) while other sget caught cheating by text message. Tony also teaches a bullied kid how to box, and he challenges the wisdom of federal laws.
Not to ruin the surprise of the NPR piece or the series, but the principal told me she’d hire him again because he’s a gifted teacher. That may be more surprising than Tony Danza actually teaching 10th grade English for an entire year.