Academic journal article English Education

Who's the Teacher? What Tony Danza Taught Us about English Education

Academic journal article English Education

Who's the Teacher? What Tony Danza Taught Us about English Education

Article excerpt

If our viewers took one thing away from the show, I hope it was a profound appreciation for the challenge that teachers across this country face each and every day.

-Danza, 2012, p. 207

The connection between teaching and Tony Danza may not be immediately clear to readers; it certainly hasn't been to our colleagues, whose first response to the subject matter of this article was a surprised chuckle. We admit to being avid fans of films and television shows that take place in schools. We have hosted viewing parties for the films The Class (2009) and Chalk (2006) and have attended campus viewings of documentaries such as Race to Nowhere (2009) and Waiting for Superman (2010) as well as the opening weekends of films such as Bad Teacher (2011). We often use these films (among others) with our preservice English teachers to examine topics such as surviving the first year of teaching, crafting writing assignments, and developing rapport with students. Nonetheless, we are frequently disappointed with cinematic representations of teaching as they tend to focus on extremes-either the depictions are unrelentingly bleak or they portray caricatures of teachers, students, and schools.

When the cable channel Arts and Entertainment (A&E) began airing promotional advertisements for its new reality television show, Teach: Tony Danza (2010), we were bemused. The television star, the promos explained, had decided to follow through on his abandoned college dream of becoming a teacher and to share his experiences with A&E's audience. Having grown up watching Danza on our television sets, we were unsure as to the seriousness of the show. Was this an actual reality show or another sitcom? Who would be crazy enough to hire Tony Danza, best known for his roles as a dopey nice guy in shows such as Taxi and Who's the Boss, to teach literature and writing to high school students? Our first impression was that this show was going to be a disaster.

Television critics were also initially skeptical of the premise but came to appreciate the show's representations of Danza and the teaching profession. New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley (2010) summed up her initial reaction to the show's premise succinctly: "It sounds like a joke." She went on, however, to praise the show for its attempts to portray the profession realistically. Others shared Stanley's views. Mary McNamara (2010) of the Los Angeles Times reflected: "It would be easy to dismiss A&E's new reality show Teach: Tony Danza as the vanity project of a faded TV actor. But it would be wrong. Not inaccurate, perhaps, but wrong." These critics found something of worth in the many scenes in which Danza shares his fears and frustrations with teaching, often in the early morning hours to a webcam, and in his increasing acknowledgment that this profession is not about his performance, but about that of his students. High school teacher and blogger Jill Thomas (2011) concluded that the show "reveals to non-educators what happens after the bell rings." And we agree.

Our experience with Teach: Tony Danza developed in two phases. First, as scholars interested in media representations of education, we were drawn to the idea of analyzing Danza's experience for what it reflects about the current state of teaching and how it fits into the larger conversation about film and television images of schools. Second, we were interested in whether this show could be a useful tool to share with our students. As a result, our two phases are reflected in the two central questions addressed in this article: (1) How does the reality show genre structure Tony Danza's teaching narrative in a way that makes it compelling to us as teachers and teacher educators? (2) Might this series about a brand-new high school English teacher be useful as well as compelling, in terms of posing critical issues to preservice English teachers?

In addressing the first question, we are motivated by our belief that Danza's reality television "performance," and his subsequent published reflections on his teaching experiences, are an important example of what Leslie Rush and Lisa Scherffcall for in their introduction to the January 2011 issue of English Education:

We hope that both inside and outside of our membership, the voices of English teachers, English teacher educators, and other stakeholders will continue to provide thoughtful, engaging, and provocative alternatives to the general stereotypes currently popular in the media. …

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