Years later, Tony traded his television scripts for textbooks for one year with a classroom of 10th-graders who had to Google Who's the Boss? to know what it was. The ups and downs of his experience as a first-year teacher at Northeast High School in Philadelphia were filmed for a reality show called Teach premiering October 1 on A&E. In this exclusive Q&A with Tony, he reveals what his students taught him, the teachers who inspired him and what's else he's got cooking.
Lynn Okura: What was the biggest lesson you learned from your students?
Tony Danza: You learn self-control. I think it's the same lesson you learn over and over again in life. ... I'll tell you an example. I worked at an old folks' home once in Harlem, and I was an activities volunteer. I used to do all these plays with the old people. I did The Wizard of Oz, it was adapted. There was a guy there who played the harmonica, so we had an overture, and The Wizard was 96. I got some kids from around the corner—third-graders—who were playing the Munchkins. I used to say to myself as I went there: "Oh, I'm doing something good. I'm going to go out there." But it was so good for me. I think it's called doing well by doing good.
One of the lessons I taught big-time this year, because it comes up a lot in the [literature], is seeing things from another person's perspective—empathy. We talked about empathy and putting yourself in the other people's shoes. In [To Kill a Mockingbird], he talks about that, and I think that's one of the real lessons—is that you can talk about that, or you can really do that.
When you have students—26 of them—with all their different lives...I had one girl who straightened me out. I'm worried about what's going on in their lives and trying to be cognizant of that, and then she said to me one day, "Did you ever think of what went on the period before yours?" I didn't think that you could have such a bad period before mine, that you come in and that's why you don't want to do the work today. So you really have to be cognizant of other people's feelings.
LO: Looking back, is there anything you would change about your first day in the classroom?
TD: There really isn't anything I'd change because you have to go through it. It's funny—there is a certain irony to this. One of the reasons I went back to do this is because I wasn't that good of a student. I just didn't get it, and so I was trying to have the kids learn from my mistakes, as opposed to making [mistakes] themselves. I used to tell them to get smart early, as opposed to late, because I got smart late...but I got lucky. Not everybody is going to get lucky. And there's an irony to that because, as a teacher, you almost have to make your own mistakes.