Ex-Sitcom Star Tony Danza Turns To Teaching

One of the most striking reality shows this fall features Tony Danza — the actor from Taxi and Who's the Boss — teaching 10th grade English in a Philadelphia public school.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Actor Tony Danza returns to TV this Friday. It's been years since he starred in "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss?" But this time around, instead of a sitcom, he's in a reality show called "Teach," on the A&E Network.

He finds himself in front of a 10th grade English class at Philadelphia's largest public high school. Before he was a TV star, Danza actually studied to become a teacher. And as Andy Dehnart reports, the desire to teach came first and then, the TV show.

ANDY DEHNART: A celebrity teaching a real high school class seemed so ridiculous that a veteran teacher confronted Tony Danza right away.

Mr. TONY DANZA (Actor): He grabbed me right at the beginning of the year. He's like, are you here to act a teacher, or you here to be a teacher because you can make a difference -which is it? You know, he was really tough.

DEHNART: Students at Northeast High School volunteered to be in Danza's class. But executive producer Leslie Greif says everyone was still concerned about the effects this experiment could have on the kids.

Mr. LESLIE GREIF (Executive Producer, "Teach"): They only had one chance to go through 10th grade English, and that was of paramount concern and importance to Tony.

DEHNART: During the first week of class, students look bored as Danza reads a definition from his notes. They roll their eyes at things he says, and openly mock his discomfort.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Teach")

Unidentified Student: I have a question.

Mr. DANZA: Oh, yes, please.

Unidentified Student: Are you nervous?

Mr. DANZA: I'm terrified.

Unidentified Student: Okay, because...

DEHNART: The student stifles a smile as she looks down at her desk, and the camera zooms in on Danza's sweat-soaked shirt.

Unidentified Student: I don't want to embarrass you or anything, but maybe you should like, wear more undershirts or something.

Mr. DANZA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.

Unidentified Student: He sweats - lots. I guess he gets nervous, whatever, and like if you make him raise his arms, there's like all this sweat under there. It's like - you could fill up a bucket of water with it.

DEHNART: Cameras weren't at the school for the entire year, and didn't seem to have much of an effect. Greif says they even caught students cheating by text message.

Mr. GREIF: They're yawning. They're picking their nose. They're texting. And I'm thinking, do you realize the cameras are watching you text in class? But in my mind, it was like, all right, they're going on, school is school, they're going to do their thing.

DEHNART: Katherine Kellen is a professor of English at Seminole State College who also taught at an urban high school for six years, and she says Danza's experience was a lot easier than what most teachers go through their first year.

Ms. KATHERINE KELLEN (Professor of English, Seminole State College Kellen): Because of having one class that was selected out, because of having a mentor teacher who has an exclusive responsibility to help you, because of having the principal's interest and attention for support.

DEHNART: But she said the series does make teaching look difficult and underappreciated. And that's exactly what Tony Danza hoped for.

Mr. DANZA: I want it to show what's going on in an American high school. I want it to say to guys like my age, hey, maybe, let me see what I can do. Maybe -because there's nothing like it.

DEHNART: There's an even bigger surprise besides Danza's passion for teaching. He's actually good at it. The show's producers paid to air- condition the library, and Danza helped the school raise money. But even without all that, Northeast High School principal Linda Carroll says she'd hire him again because he's a gifted teacher.

Ms. LINDA CARROLL (Principal, Northeast High School): Oh, God, absolutely. No question because he's funny, he's caring, he understands that before you can teach a thing, you have to connect and build a relationship with a child, and he's willing to do that.

DEHNART: Danza won over his colleagues, too. Their approval meant so much that he chokes up as he flips through the school's yearbook.

Mr. DANZA: Here's my most, maybe my most proudest thing. I can't -you know, this is hard to take.

(Soundbite of pages flipping)

Mr. DANZA: This is the English department.

DEHNART: He points to his picture among all the other teachers, and his face widens into a broad smile.

(Soundbite of pages flipping)

Mr. DANZA: I mean, and so these people agreed that I, you know, deserved to be on this page. This is the greatest honor I can tell you - I can't even tell you. And I'm in front of a blackboard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEHNART: And that's where Tony Danza will be for seven, one-hour episodes.

For NPR News, I'm Andy Dehnart.

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