Hard to Tell Who’s the Boss in 'Teach'

By Emily Guendelsberger
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Oct. 5, 2010

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“One out of two doesn’t make it!” says Tony Danza during the opening montage of the new A&E reality show Teach: Tony Danza, referring to the statistic that about half of Philadelphia public-school students don’t graduate. “Crazy!”

He wanted to make a difference, Danza informs us in voiceover, and so, armed with optimism, memories of education classes from 40 years ago and a film crew, he moved to the City of Brotherly Love and started as a 10th-grade English teacher at Northeast, Philly’s largest high school.

But the Philadelphia School District is even worse at holding on to new teachers like Danza than it is its students. A recent study showed that 48 percent of new teachers left within three years—slightly more than the 47 percent of students who drop out before graduation. There have been many studies done to pin down the specific reasons, but ask pretty much any new teacher why they think the turnover rate is so high—they’ll make it very clear:

Learning the ropes in the Philadelphia School District is miserable.

PW sat down to watch the show with four second-year Philadelphia public-school teachers who went through their trial-by-fire first year at the same time as Danza to see how accurately they thought the show depicted their experience.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” groans Diego—a 10th-grade history teacher at a magnet school—as Danza tears up for the first time around the three-minute mark. Danza sniffles something about biting off more than he could chew, the teachers scoff, but upon further discussion, they empathize—crying is part of the job. “But never, ever in front of the students,” says Cassidy, who teaches ninth-grade English at a large, high-poverty North Philadelphia high school, also regularly on the Persistently Dangerous list. The rest emphatically agree. “Then that’s all they can talk about for the rest of the year. And you’re done,” she says.

The teachers casually swap horrific anecdotes of student misbehavior: threats and violence, regularly being cursed at, finding an “I GOT A BLOODY PUZZY” sign taped to another teacher’s back. But they say their breakdowns are associated more with the system than with the students. Danza’s on-camera sniffling is a bit much, the teachers say, because he never has to deal with many of the institutional problems they do.

One of the big issues, the teachers say, is dealing with the administration.

“I think I met [my principal], like, twice last year,” says Amanda, who teaches 11th-grade English at a large, high-poverty West Philly high school that’s also regularly on the district’s Persistently Dangerous Schools list.*

Danza met with Northeast Principal Linda Carroll for a few one-on-one chats in his first week alone.

“If this doesn’t work … you’re out,” Carroll says. “With that said, I want to welcome you, and let you know that we’ll give you everything you need to get the job done.”

That’s probably not entirely true considering many district teachers pay for school supplies themselves, a fact not mentioned in the first episode. Amanda rattles off a list of things she supplied herself last year: “A projector, paper, pencils for the kids to write with, notebooks, books, access to computers—I purchased two netbooks last year, one of them got stolen.”

Beth, who teaches 10th-grade English at the same school as Amanda, and Cassidy want disciplinary support. “There are no school-wide consequences for a kid showing up to my class 10 minutes late every single day and not doing a damn thing—there’s nowhere to send her during school time,” Beth says.

For nonviolent offenses, at many underprivileged schools it often falls on the teacher to hold detention and call parents. Cassidy adds that almost anything, short of violence, could happen to her without punishment from above. “They can curse you out, they can call you a bitch, they can walk out, then the other kids start to see that there’s no consequences.”

Which the teachers say is another big problem: the rampant institutionalized indifference—an earbuds-in atmosphere of openly not giving a shit.

If that’s true, it’s certainly not reflected in the show, where the students in Danza’s class self-selected as more motivated, as they had to apply to get in. Most students, the teachers say, wouldn’t have let him get a word in edgewise.

The worst student behavior in the first episode could be described as “slightly rude.” One girl asks if Danza’s nervous, pointing out the sweat stains on his shirt. He stammers, and she helpfully suggests “I don’t want to embarrass you or anything, but, like, maybe you should, like, wear more undershirts or something.”

Amanda, saying that exchange rings true but would have been meaner in real life, recalls a response she got earlier that day after asking a student multiple times to take out her earbuds and take a test:

“‘FUCK YOU, YOU’RE SO FUCKIN’ WEIRD, DON’T TALK TO ME!’”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. Jennifer said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 04:53AM

“I'm a second year teacher teaching at a neighborhood school in SW Philly, and everything those teachers said is true...I used to cry almost every day on my way home last year. I'm still hanging in there, and I'm glad that others are too. It's really a tough world there, but I know that I'm becoming a stronger teacher because of it.”

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2. Ms. Chips said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 08:55AM

“I have had the humbling honor of working with first year teachers for the last few years. Almost all are well educated, dedicated, hard working and absolutely gob-smacked by the institutional racism of the district.
TEACH was better than I expected, for it did not demonize anyone, but the window on this 1st year teacher's incompetence is not something allowed to continue with real new teachers. Each lesson needs a well defined, measurable objective and is about students being guided to reach this goal. When this basic focus is not met, teachers are given guidance to do so.
What we saw was about Mr. Danza surviving his lack of knowledge of his basic content area, of how to teach and of how adolescents learn. Any benefit to his "students" was coincidental.”

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3. Teacher in North Philly said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 03:11PM

“I'll give Tony Danza credit for attempting to step in to my shoes however a 45 minute block once per day with students that want to get an education and a "co-teacher" to assist is not a real job in Philly!!! This show is not going to show the reality of an inner city teacher..it never will. I do not think teaching at Northeast is easy for my fellow PFT members working there but it sure is hell is better than other places that the show could have been placed. The district does not want to show what it is really like in a philadelphia school setting.. that is why it is in northeast Philly and not anywhere else. Try a real setting where you are crammed with classes of 30 students that swear at you, say filthy things to you, bring drugs to school, run the building with out going to class, assault you, disrupt instruction, and then have to deal with a majority of the parents who are just as non compliant. The reality of urban education in Philly is misrepresented.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 03:17PM

“I cried on my way TO school last year it was so awful. It still is, but I don't cry anymore. I just wait for my chance to get out. Everything described above is true.

I'm starting my second year; this year I have an advisory and no one has formally shown me how to record student attendance or fill out some forms.

Thank god for veteran teachers who are willing to help! Certainly administration doesn't do it. Or the students with their rudeness, disrespect and lack of interest in learning. It's a chaotic nightmare.

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5. Teach inNorth Philly said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 03:28PM

“I would like to also elaborate to all of you that the disruption I was referring to above is in a k-8 school. Yes- kids as young as kindergarten will curse you out, bite you, hit you... yeah- it is a moment in paradise.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Oct 7, 2010 at 04:57AM

“And when you got cursed out, did the administration tell you it's because you don't have "good classroom management?"

what a joke. What about THEIR management?”

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7. Steve said... on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:11AM

“The best part of the show was when my alma mater Father Judge smoked them in football. We beat them again this year, 7 to zip.”

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8. Mel said... on Oct 12, 2010 at 11:51AM

“I actually felt for him as well. I've taught in North Philly, Mount Airy, and South Philly. I have had parents threaten me over grades, bring their relatives up to the school to beat me up, and had no support from the admin. I used to cry daily and honestly thought about giving up and going into retail. I was lucky enough to transfer to a school where my co-workers and the parents are kind and helpful. Yes, I still have a ton of work and get frustrated, but I finally feel like I am putting my master's to good use and accomplishing something at the end of the day. These teachers in the rough schools, I don't blame them for wanting to quit. Without the support and acknowledgment of these serious behavior problems, they cannot do their job. It is beyond the realm of just a school problem. It is also an attitude towards schooling and teachers that is overwhlemingly negative.”

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9. N. Philly Teacher said... on Oct 31, 2010 at 11:23AM

“One good thing is that it showed just how hard it can be to teach, under the best circumstances and supports. If you wanted reality, Mr. Danza should have gone to Fitz, Germantown, Gratz or West, with a HIDDEN CAMERA and not told the principal. It would have been an entirely different show!

As and aside, a fun time for him would be during the 11th grade PSSA's. The average reading level of an incoming 9th grader at a "neighborhood high school" is about 4th grade. The kids would not want to take the test because it is written for kids with a higher reading level and it frustrates them and makes them feel dumb. They take the test and they do horribly. Mr. Danza gets told that he is a bad teacher and is ineffective. No one cares that he raised the kid's reading level from 4th grade to a 9th grade in two years by working his butt off with kids every day both during class and free time. No one looks at the changes he fostered, or the gap he covered, just the 11th grade results. Insane.”

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