I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High
reviewed by Luke Reynolds - November 02, 2012
Title: I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High
Author(s): Tony Danza
Publisher: Crown Publishers,
ISBN: 0307887863, Pages: 272, Year: 2012
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Tony Danzas Id Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had is a synthesis that combines memoir, how-to, and educational reform in the package of an unlikely, unexpectedly poignant and knowledgeable voice. Better known for his award-winning acting credits in television series like Taxi and Whos the Boss, Danza here honestly shares his journey as a public school English teacher of tenth graders in Philadelphias inner-city Northeast High School. Danza frames the volume by stating his reason for the odd venture into the classroom at almost-60 years old: My original career plan in college was to teach...I was still trying to live out my early vocational dream (p. 6). However, Danza also admits that when reality-show producer Leslie Grief was willing to take this teaching venture and pitch it as a show for a major network, the impetus connected and the idea found reality. Writing in an authentic, self-deprecating tone, the book becomes a love letter to Danzas students, to public school educators, and also to the searing challenges of public school in America today.
Even though the network A & E, buys the reality-show idea, a celebrity actor and a camera crew at the back of ones classroom do little to afford respect or erase the problems that public school teachers face every day. From the moment his students enter the classroom, Danza acknowledges both the fear and the rigor of the job: [The students] look at me like Ive lost my mind. Theyre not getting it, and I so want them to get this...Theyre texting, yawning, staring at my shirt, which must be dripping on the floor by now (p. 13). This kind of honest writing about the way his students treat him provides the catalyst for the reader to see Danza less and less as an actor impersonating a teacher and more and more as a real, hardworking colleague as the pages progress. Indeed, by the end of Chapter Two, Danzas voice has almost ceased to be that of an actor and becomes fully that of a teacher. He admits: For some reason, I feel like crying all the time! (p. 25).
Throughout the volume, Danza includes specific and helpful shop talk about his work with his tenth graders. For instance, he discusses a self-designed school-wide scavenger hunt for his students to review Steinbecks novel Of Mice and Men and how he runs with a teachable moment by using a new school uniform policy to have a roaring debate that includes the use of evidence and rhetorical strategies (Chapter Five). By Chapter Six, when Danza reflects on the highs and woes of a field trip to Washington D.C., the fact that he is anything but a teacher is effectively discounted. Later, as Danza grapples with his decision not to fly back to his own home, in Los Angeles, for Thanksgiving break, he shares this candid and poignant reflection: I dont know how other teachers do it, even without the distance. Maybe this explains the clichéd image of teachers as spinsters. With everything you have to do for school, whos got anything left for a marriage or family? (p. 101).
At times, the tone of the writing begins to veer into self-focused, almost ego-driven narrative, but Danza consistently pulls back the lens of the camera in order to connect his own emotions to those of the other teachers within his school and, by extrapolation, public school teachers across the country. Whether he feels ignored and rejected by unruly students, chastised by administrators for forgetting to sign in or follow proper school procedures, or befuddled by the lack of support from parents, Danza puts his own inner turmoil, emotion, and confusion on the page. But he broadens these moments so that they form a series of truths about the lives of teachers: the demands are harder than anyone thinks.
What emerges as a powerful theme as the book unfolds is that in order to succeed in the inner-city public school classrooms of today, teachers must be able to approach their vocations with incredible capacity for self-reflection (which would have to include, according to Danza, a seemingly unlimited ability to explore ones own weaknesses) as well as the passion to create curriculum that is highly engaging, interactive, and diversified. In their penetrating article, Diversifying Curriculum, Nieto, Bode, Kang, & Raible (2008) describe a problem plaguing curriculum: namely, the silencing of voices from students who have consistently been marginalized. Curriculum should experience the weight of the social, political and academic responsibilities to enable change: We hope that making these voices audible will advance a new approach to developing curriculum (Nieto et al., 2008, p. 194). Danzas consistent approach to teaching throughout his book reveals that one of his most foundational goals is in line with Nietos claim above: to encourage students to share their own stories, experiences, and ideas in interactive and engaging lessons that help students discover and utilize their own agency.
What is most refreshing about the volume is that it steers quickly away from both the political and educational jargon that often works to conceal root issues and practical experiences of teachers and teaching. For instance, Danza doesnt feel the need to look at overarching political discourse and educational trends before he is able to offer the following problem-solution: More than one hundred of the new teachers who went through orientation with me in August quit before we even got to Christmas. There has to be a better solution. And then it comes to me. Three classes per teacher, instead of five (p. 192). This kind of real-world, practical-based writing can slant two ways. To some readers, it comes across as hard-earned wisdom from someone who went into a tough school at almost sixty-years old and stuck it out for the full year. To other readers, it may come across as naive, fiscally impossible, or even weak. But Danzas work in the two-hundred pages prior to this moment have already earned points for credibility, and his tone towards the end of the volume takes on that of a believer in the system, and a fighter for not only disadvantaged students, but also discouraged teachers.
Ultimately, Tony Danzas Id Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had is an unassuming yet bold book. Repeatedly, it makes the claim that teaching is hard workand it supports that claim with anecdotal evidence from the classroom as well as the personal and emotional toll it takes on the life of a man who has already had prodigious experience dealing with performance anxiety, intensity, and results-driven environments. On every page of the volume, what stands out most remarkably is Danzas love for learning, his compassion for students, and his poignant description of a public school system that needs help, not judgment. This book would be a highly beneficial read for beginning teachers, but also for policy makers and administrators.
Nieto, S., Bode, P. Kang, E., & Raible, J. (2008). Identity, community and diversity: retheorizing multicultural education for the postmodern era. Pp. 176-197 in F. Connelly, F. Kang, & J. Phillion, (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction. Los Angeles: Sage.