Monday, October 11, 2010


Are you guys watching the new A&E show, Teach: Tony Danza? I just watched the first episode.

The premise, of course, is that this famous guy tries to be a teacher. But can he do it?
Now, since I've also been a teacher, I noticed that most of the issues he faces are exactly the same ones any new teacher faces.

We see him smiling in teacher orientation and taking notes. We see him scrubbing and decorating his room. (In fast forward, no less--any way that we can make that happen in real life?) We see him write things on the board in preparation for his students. He gets in trouble for not knowing to sign in when he arrives. All of these things are very real and relatable.

The principal asks him about his motivation and emphasizes that the kids and their education is what matters. (This I find a little contrived--one assumes this happened when the project began.) We meet a coach who's helping him reflect on what he does. (I sure wish every teacher had one of those!) There's a lot of jocular, fun-guy posturing with random people he encounters.

Eventually it's time for the first day of school! He talked about how anxious he was. I felt just as nervous as he was. What will he say? Will the kids be respectful?

Finally, the bell rings and kids start filing in. He greets them, happily but you can still tell there's some nervous posturing in there. The kids all sit there and they are SILENT. (I found myself jealous--in my first year, there were maybe 15 minutes of *cumulative* silence!) I'm sure that the cameras played a big part in that. He stumbles through a welcome speech and the kids start asking him questions, most of them uncomfortable. "Are you a millionaire?" "Are you nervous? Because you're sweating a lot." Ag, kids always find a way to shoot right through your shield, don't they?

Tony asks the kids to tell about themselves, and so we meet most of the students. They seem like real, regular kids. It's a fairly diverse group, too. In interviews they express doubt that Mr Danza knows what he's doing and if he's qualified to be their teacher. We also see them discussing it together at lunch.

I found myself wondering about regular first-year teachers. I know that kids sense weakness and uncertainty. And plenty of urban kids have dealt with first-year teachers, and know that they don't know what they're doing. I wonder if they talk about it? I wonder how much they think it through that way to themselves. My kids were younger but had probably seen plenty.

We see Mr Danza teaching about elements of fiction, and you can tell that he's never done it before, but that he's plugging along the best he can. One kid says something, Tony says he's wrong and then realizes that he's right after all. The kids interview that oh ho, mr teacher isn't quite so smart.

Another day he shows them a plot chart (and calls the exposition "basic situation" which I thought kind of silly) and asks them to read their own stories to see the plot elements in their own writing. He gets crickets and eventually reads one of the kids' stories himself. Then he gets on a roll and reads a lot more work out loud. He gets to a big word a student used wrong, and then *he* looked it up for them. I think later he realized that he should have had the student do that.

Thus begins a big thing about talking too much and letting the kids read and giving them a chance. He's also the assistant football coach, and talks too much to the team in the locker room. The coach talks to him about too much talking.

He interviews a couple times that he's not sure if he can do this. This is the first week and I think it perfectly represents what all teachers go through. The trials in class, the self-doubt, people telling you all the things you're doing wrong. Yikes. That sucks, no matter who you are. On the other hand, that's really the only way to get better. It's just really tough and you are forced to abandon all dignity and pride.

The kids interview that they don't really think they've learned anything from him, but a couple counter that it's early and maybe it will get better. They don't want him to get strict though, because they hate that and don't learn from that.

At the football game, while the kids are losing spectacularly, Tony starts meeting the parents of his students. They all talk to him about what he's going to do for their children and help them, and that he should let the parents know if there's any issues. Classic parent talk! Especially the one who goes on and on about her son but once Tony says that he wants the kids to read 30 minutes a day she gets all huffy because he has practice and takes two buses to get home. He interjects, "That's fine, he can read 30 minutes on the bus!" and she just shakes her head, annoyed. Gotta love excuses from the same parents who preach the success they want for their kids.

He reflects that the week has been really tough, the hardest thing he's ever done. He doesn't know if he's cut out for this; he worries; did he make a mistake? You can tell he's pretty down. He likes his class and he doesn't want to let them down.

I think that every teacher has gone through this exact train of thought. And not just in the first week of school, either--over and over again, all throughout the year, and even into the summer afterwards!

I remember when this show was proposed and everyone was up in arms about it--making a mockery of teaching; making light of teachers' plight; etc. But frankly, I think it's fantastic--almost all of his experience in this first episode is the same experience that all first-year teachers go through--the self-doubt, the humiliation, the unresponsive class, the parents who pressure you to make their child "better." I think it's a window for the uninitiated to see what teachers see, what they're thinking, that teachers really worry about if they're doing enough, doing the right thing, constantly looking at all the wrong things, getting beaten down at every turn, but still work hard to rally and keep going. I find it extremely realistic (other than the tap-dancing millionaire aspect, obviously! :D) and I think it's a good thing. A great antidote to the Teacher Movie where the bad-kids-who-aren't-actually-bad miraculously have a magical turnaround and all of a sudden the teacher is successful and the kids listen and learn everything and become super-students. Gah.

I look forward to watching more! Did you watch it? What do you think?


Ms. M said...

SOunds interesting. Wish I could watch too!

Ms M. said...

I missed that first episode, but watched the second and I totally wanted to post something about it but haven't had time!

He cried in the second episode and said something along the lines of how he didn't realize how hard this was going to be and also didn't realize how EMOTIONAL it would make him. I wanted to kiss him in that moment because it's so true. Teaching is emotionally hard and people who have never taught just don't understand it.

I'll be interested to see what happens with the rest of his year...