“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!’”