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I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High Hardcover – September 11, 2012
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A Conversation Between Authors Erin Gruwell and Tony Danza
Erin Gruwell, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Freedom Writers Diary (basis of the Hillary Swank film “Freedom Writers”), talks to Tony Danza about his new book I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had…
Erin: Your book about teaching high school English for a year is so endearing. It’s really a love letter to teaching.
Tony: For me, teaching was the road not taken. If you look at my acting work, so many of the roles involve being a teacher. Tony in “Who’s the Boss?” becomes a teacher. I studied history education in college. I wanted to be a teacher. Teaching always appealed to me. Arthur Miller once said, “The best thing you can hope for is that you end up with the right regrets.” I didn’t want to regret not trying this.
Erin: It seems like you were on quest for meaning.
Tony: It was kind of existential, I guess. Why am I here? – that was the question. Everyone wonders, What does my life add up to? My closest cousin died at an early age of a heart attack. I remember my mom dying and the day after…it was weird, everything was the same. She was gone, but everything continued as it had been. It causes you to reflect on what you’re meant to do. We all want to know the role we’re meant to play.
Erin: There’s a part of the book that seems like it’s almost a homage to your parents, to the emphasis they placed on education.
Tony: They were immigrants, never went to college, didn’t finish high school, but they knew school made a difference. My father died died at 62 when I was 32, just as I was beginning to feel, “Hey, maybe he knows something.” I thought about that when I got in the classroom. A lot of kids don’t have fathers around, and I felt a certain responsibility. I myself exerted little effort back when I was in school. I just got lucky, I very easily could have been lost. I felt, “These kids need to hear the message: pay attention, school is important, this is something you must do.”
Erin: In urban areas, there often aren’t a lot of strong father figures. How did it feel when you were teaching that lesson on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the kids called you “our Atticus?”
Tony: Midway through the year, one girl, Nikiya, actually started calling me “dad.” The character Atticus, maybe our greatest hero (whom Gregory Peck played in the film), represented someone who cared, who listened, who wouldn’t yell at them. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the image my students had of me. These kids have such huge needs. It’s scary.
Erin: You had this dual reality – you had both your classroom family and your family back in L.A. What was it like balancing both?
Tony: I hoped the teaching thing was something my wife and kids would be proud of. Especially my kids. That was a secret motivation, I guess. But there was also something else I hoped my kids would get out of it. They’re privileged, having been brought up in L.A. with access to a lot of nice things. So, though they’d go to the mission to help out, get involved in various charities, they didn’t have much sense of the type of lives my classroom kids were living. So that was one of my hopes for the project, too -- to give them a reality check, show them what life could be like.
Erin: Anyone who reads this book will feel that you’re really committed to teaching as a craft – that you think of it as a noble profession.
Tony: It certainly is. It’s maybe the most important job there is. There came a point where I thought, Wow, this is really tough – can I even stick out the year? But then you see the commitment of the people around you, the long days some people are putting in, that responsibility they have of dealing with 150 kids each (my load wasn’t at that level) and so much need. From that perspective, one year doesn’t seem like that big a deal. It’s funny, though, at night I’d be totally stressed, thinking about the day I’d had, what I’d failed to get right. But somehow in the morning, I was all pumped up, I had this newfound verve. And then the first kid I’d see at school, the very first kid, I would smile at him and say, “Good morning” and he would scowl at me, and when that happens you just have to re-commit.
Erin: What was toughest part of the job?
Tony: Well, kids walk in and right away they’re broadcasting this message: engage me. They tend to not take responsibility for their own education, though eventually most of the kids in my class did, which was wonderful. I think the toughest part was that there’s a certain Catch-22. Kids will not work for you unless you show that you like them. But once you show them that, they open up to you in a big way. They tell you secrets – sometimes heartbreaking secrets – and then what do you do?
Erin: Did you actually cry in class?
Tony: Oh yeah. At first it was a crisis of confidence. I was scared out of my mind that I would fail the kids in the only tenth-grade English class they would ever have. But then it morphed and I began crying about the kids themselves – the problems some of them had to deal with, the way they could make me feel. One minute they’d break my heart with a demonstrative yawn, and the next they’d show me such love that I felt weak.
Erin: Your emotion is very endearing, actually. You don’t try to shield it. What about your colleagues? I noticed in the book that many kept asking you how long you were staying. What was that all about?
Tony: When I got there some of my fellow teachers were skeptical. Who could blame them? They wanted to know this was no stunt. The way things are for teachers right now that would be the last thing they needed. It wasn’t only my students who wanted to know I cared. But little by little I had to win them over. Toward the end, I … well, I’m not patting myself on the back for this, but some of the same teachers who were the most skeptical were asking me to stay. I remember thinking, jeez, at my age do I really want to care this much about anything other than my own kids? Anyway, I formed great relationships with many of the teachers. I put on the first ever Teacher Talent Show at the school where the teachers performed, and the next day some of these teachers walked into classrooms and their kids gave them standing ovations. That raised my standing.
Erin: So what’s the solution for getting more kids on the right track? What is the big lesson you learned from your year in the classroom and the process of writing this book?
Tony: There are some very big problems out there. The unmotivated student is no longer the exception, and there are many parents who, for whatever reason, are missing from what goes on. Worst of all is a culture that undermines everything you’re trying to do in the classroom. But I think trying to find the solution in something that is external to the students may be wrong, or at least not the most important thing. The most important thing is that kids must take part in their own education. We have to convince them. We can’t want it more for them than they want it for themselves. That’s not going to work. We have to say to kids, “You have one life – this is your chance.” They live in a world that is different from the one you and I grew up in. Back then, if a kid dropped out, there were jobs – construction jobs and so forth. You could still have a good life. Not today. School is necessary. It’s important. You can still have your dreams, but most adults know that sometimes you have to put your dreams in your pocket and make a life. Taking part in your own education is step number one.
“In this endearing memoir, Danza defies expectations…[filled with] refreshing honesty…provides insights into a teacher’s daily life.”
“A witty, self-deprecating, and charming account of how being a teacher extends far beyond the four walls of a classroom. From sweating through his shirt to harboring adoption fantasies, Tony Danza depicts his brutally and beautifully real experience as a first-year high-school teacher. With humor and honesty, he highlights the emotional toll of teaching and describes how one of the most important careers in America is still one of the most unappreciated.”
--Erin Gruwell, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling The Freedom Writers Diary
“At age 59 Tony Danza inexplicably chose to become a teacher at a tough, inner-city school. The story he tells is moving, eye-opening, and compellingly honest. Love infuses his work, and he cries a lot. Read this book and you will too.”
--Joel Klein, former New York City Schools chancellor
“It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a group of teens and proclaim yourself their teacher. It takes even more to be a good one -- someone who sees each student as an individual with a unique life story. Tony Danza put himself forward to teach children and learn from them, knowing that the more he really understood these kids the better teacher he could be for them. We easily forget how truly difficult it is to be a transformational teacher and in these pages you can see that’s what he became.”
--Rosalind Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of Queen Bees & Wannabees
“Tony Danza is filled with life, joy and the spirit of altruism – which makes him a natural teacher, as well as a perfect witness to the victories and tragedies in today’s inner-city classroom. Like teaching itself, this book is an emotional roller-coaster – but it’s also a sobering account of the perilous state of schools in our poor communities. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the nation’s children.”
--Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
“I highly recommend I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had to everyone who has thought about teaching as an encore career – and anyone who wants to know what life is like for teachers and students in American public school classrooms today. Tony’s book will make you laugh, cry, and cheer. It serves as a call to action for every one of us to take a stand and commit to the education of our young people.”
--Sherry Lansing, Former CEO of Paramount Pictures and Founder of The Sherry Lansing Foundation
"A great antidote to all those pieces by folks who consider teaching glorified babysitting."
More About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
Everyone who saw the short-lived A&E series "Teach" wondered whether Danza was really a teacher, and this book details the answer: More or less. He really did teach English for a year in a tough Philadelphia innercity school. However, he taught only one section of sophomore English with 26 students per day, he had an experienced teacher sitting in the room with him at all times, there was a camera crew and a production assistant present at all times, and, not insignificantly, he had access to the TV network's financial resources to support field trips, prizes for the classroom contests he frequently held, etc. The regular teachers, of course, had none of those things. What they did have was five times the number of students per day, limited budgets, increasing pressure to produce high test scores, and the constant threat of losing their jobs.
To his credit, Danza recognizes that his situation is special; he doesn't pretend to be an expert after his limited experience. Most of all, he loves his students and tries to do the best he can for them at all times.
That's the impact of the book for me, and that's the reason it should be read by a wide audience. Danza discovers very quickly that there is no magic trick that will suddenly "fix" public education.Read more ›
The book chronicles Danza's rookie year teaching high school English in a huge, inner-city Philadelphia school. The year was supposed to also be caught on tape for his reality show, however, the show was cancelled after just one semester. The producers wanted more drama and Danza refused to manufacture it just for ratings. That shows he has a lot of integrity, along with the fact that he stuck it out for the whole year even after the show was done.
Danza shines a spotlight on all the issues we know about education these days. There needs to be more funding, more parental involvement and better compensation for good teachers while weeding out the bad ones. But the worthwhile parts are the bits of wisdom he tries to impart to the students regarding things he's learned the hard way, like not wasting their time at school and being active participants in their educations.
I applaud the effort and came away thinking of Danza as a really good guy, not that I doubted it before.
Danza, a self-admitted slacker in high school, was assigned one 90-minute, 10th-grade English class. Understandably, many city schools did not want a "celebrity teacher" with cameras in the classroom. But, from the very beginning it was clear that Danza's foremost job was to be a teacher, not an actor.
The school superintendent told Danza he couldn't jeopardize the education of the children or he and the A & E network were gone from the school. Danza was on the same page. He said, "If the students didn't get the education they needed and deserved, I would consider the show a failure."
Danza had a lot of doubts whether he could motivate the students and reach them. He wanted to be a good teacher, and he wanted to make a difference.
"I want to try to reach kids who remind me of me and wake them up so they don't make the same mistakes I did," he said.
There's plenty of drama in Danza's classroom, but not necessarily the high-degree of drama the A & E producers want. After class trips to Washington, D.C. and New York City, the show's producers complain about the lack of drama and threatened to pull the plug on the show.
Danza said the type of drama the show wanted was exactly the kind the students and he didn't need. "I'm here to teach and they are here to learn."
The producers closed the show down after a semester, but to Danza's credit, he continued to teach.
Danza is sincere, honest and caring. He truly tries to make a difference, engaging the students and becoming emotionally involved in their lives.Read more ›
This book is a great portrayal of what it is like to be a first year teacher in a large public, inner-city school in Philadelphia. It's nicely organized with the general flow of the school year, but he includes a section called "Teacher's Lounge" at the end of each chapter where we get to see Mr. Danza learn an important lesson or receive advice from the other teachers on how things really work. But the main parts of the book are the classroom interactions with the students and the struggles that Mr. Danza goes through when dealing with the rules, the administration, the amazing amount of work that teachers have to put in, and the ever present threat of layoffs and/or downsizing. But he freely admits his advantages compared to the other teachers. First and foremost he only teaches one class a day, an English class which, as a voracious reader, is near and dear to my heart. I really enjoyed the discussions he has with the students about their studies. But where this book really shines is his interactions with those students, both in class, and one-on-one as he tries to engage them in their work. Before he knows it he is in their lives and they are in his. He tells some pretty powerful stories of these kids and what they must live through outside the classroom.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
As a fan of Tony Danza, and a high school teacher with forty years in the classroom, I thought this might be an interesting book. Read morePublished 2 days ago by Ray Wishart
It was a great book! My sister is a teacher and everything Tony says about teachers being overburdened is true! Teachers definitely don't get the respect (or pay!) they deserve!Published 3 months ago by yw
A very good book. Danza was brave and selfless in his year of teaching. His personal and sensitive description of the kids told volumes on their personal family and societal... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Rosebud
i purchased this book for my dad who was a teacher for many years. he read this book within a day and loved it! Read morePublished 5 months ago by Steven D
As a university professor, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Tony Danza provided some food for thought and he showed creativity in how he engaged the... Read morePublished 5 months ago by Sisyphus Smith