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Students, not Danza, shine in ‘Teach’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Margaret Ernst and Lauren Goldman

"Teach" comes to a close tonight with a final essay in Tony Danza’s class. By the end of the show, it’s Danza who ends up learning a lesson: that different students respond to discipline in totally different ways. And as the season ends, we’re given a chance to think about what "Teach" taught us too.

In episode seven, Danza gives Algernon, a kid who is bright but uninspired by Danza, multiple opportunities to hand in the essay instead of getting an F for the semester. But when a different student, Chloe, performs poorly and asks for a chance to revise hers, Danza says no. “This ship has sailed, Chloe,” he says firmly as she sinks into her desk, humiliated. “I’m disappointed in you.”

Chloe is so upset by the way Danza treats her that she wants to transfer out of his class. But his treatment of Algernon has precisely the opposite effect. After class Algernon tells the camera, “Getting so many chances doesn’t make me understand that what I’m doing is wrong.”

Danza’s experience with Algernon and Chloe demonstrates issues with inconsistent policies in the classroom, but also the range of student responses to positive and negative reinforcement. Motivating students is a careful dance that doesn’t just come with a teaching degree.

By this last episode of the season, Tony has a lot more together in his classroom. He’s more on top of lesson plans and is more confident in front of his class. But he definitely hasn’t worked out one of the trickiest parts about his job: intuiting effective ways to reach a diverse group of students with a variety of needs and personalities.

In the Winter 2009 edition of the Notebook, students discussed their perspectives on their relationships with teachers. Their responses, like Algernon’s and Chloe’s, reveal the fine line between the need for consistency of rules and the need for teachers to adapt to students’ different learning styles.

For those interested in an in-depth conversation about education in Philadelphia, "Teach" was often annoyingly Danza-centric. His emotions and reactions to teaching form the brunt of the narrative, but clearly don’t reflect what it would be like to be a first-year teacher without loads of extra support and celebrity status.

That said, "Teach" let us hear the voices of students like Algernon and Chloe:

  • It let us hear from Johnny, who wanders the hallways instead of going to class, but who wants to get back on track.
  • We heard from Monte, who wasn’t afraid to make demands about his education when he was worried that Danza was moving too slowly.
  • We saw Daniel, a football player, and Howard, who Tony coaches in boxing, struggle with the pressure of athletics, academics, and their friends.

The thoughts of these students and their classmates on school, life, and Mr. Danza weren’t edited to make Danza look good. In fact, their testimonies often showed their high expectations for teachers and the extent to which he wasn’t meeting those expectations.

It’s not every day that cable television highlights the inner workings of a large urban public high school. In that way, the spotlight on the semi-real world of Northeast High may have been valuable in promoting the importance of a commitment to education on a national level. Why? Because in many ways, Danza wasn’t the star. His students were.

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