While everyone else was off watching "Waiting for 'Superman'" this weekend, I stumbled upon Tony Danza's new show where he becomes a teacher in Philly. I was initially highly skeptical of a show where a former star actor becomes a teacher at an urban school to make it back on tv and show the world how great he is. But after watching the first episode, I was left feeling more sorry for Tony Danza than anything else.
I don't know what was in the 99% of the footage that was edited out, but two things seem quite apparent to the viewer as the school year starts out: 1.) Mr. Danza isn't a very good teacher; 2.) He spends a lot of time dwelling on worries and self-doubt, both about his teaching abilities and other things in his life.
I'd also add that he comes across as a genuinely enthusiastic and charismatic person -- somebody who could probably be a great teacher, though it's not obviously apparent that he has the knowledge base requisite to teach 10th grade English. That said, these were a few of my thoughts as I watched the episode:
*Wow, the Asst. Principal (Ms. DeNaples) is incredibly rude to him. Are you an administrator in an urban school that wants to make new teachers quit? Treat teacher the way she does.
*The Principal, on the other hand, is tough but fair. She informs that he'll get "all the support" he needs, but she also says that he has to know that "if this doesn't work, you're out of here".
*The kids are pretty blunt. One says flat-out: "he's a lot older than the videos I saw of him." Another interrupts his first(?) day of class to ask if he's nervous and points out that he's sweating through his shirt. This alleviated some of my concerns that that the students would be in awe of him and the tv cameras and act like docile angels.
*It seems like in every camera shot his mentor teacher (not sure what his exact title was) was there. They seemed to be constantly talking over how Danza's lessons had gone (not well). Most teachers in Danza's situation wish they had an ever-present mentor like that. On another note, the fact that his mentor was at least 20 years younger than him was somewhat amusing.
All in all, it wasn't wholly unrepresentative of what life is like as a new teacher in an urban school. I'm still skeptical of his motives, how it will affect the kids (he apparently lives in LA, so it seems unlikely he's planning on doing this for more than one year), and the way the footage is edited. I also could find no indication that he was teaching more than the one English class in the show or on the website (that would make life an awful lot easier). I found the show neither incredibly riveting nor incredibly aggravating to watch. I'm not going to boycott it, but I'm also not going to schedule my life around the airtime to ensure I catch every remaining episode.
If I do watch a few more, though, I'll be watching to see how they frame the middle and end of the year. Right now they're clearly clearly portraying him as a struggling teacher. Will the focus of the rest of the series be on his personal struggles and crises, on the difficulties of teaching in an urban school, or be made into a cheesy "Danza conquers Philly" tale of success and redemption? Is Danza the "Superman" for whom we're waiting?
p.s. Linda Perlstein had a good take on the show a couple weeks back that's worth reading
update: Just came across this article on the series in the LA Times (which, by the way, has the worst website of any online newspaper I've read recently -- it looks more like the National Enquirer than a major national newspaper). Apparently Danza taught last year, only taught two classes per day, was only filmed teaching until January, and had to have the teaching coach sit in on every lesson b/c he wasn't full certified. And it mentions a "casting call" for the students in his class -- not quite sure what that means. It also sounds like he ended up considering the year a success despite the rocky start.