Television has tried repeatedly to bring the teachers’ lounge to living rooms. This began with Our Miss Brooks (which debuted as a radio broadcast in the '40s) and continued into the last decade with Boston Public, a show that portrayed a faculty full of designer-suit clad, beautiful people who were, at best, prone to oodles of sexual innuendo, and at worst, prone to making out in dark corners of campus.
Just to set the record straight before I move on: in real life, there are oodles of innuendo, but that’s typically because all day we’re stuck talking to teenagers, who chortle and nudge each other for several minutes if we say something as humdrum as, “Put that thing away.” So after the last bell, when we emerge from our classrooms sweaty and irked, we need some witty nuance like a tongue needs . . . well, water.
Now A&E is bringing high school to the small screen with a new reality show called Teach, starring Tony Danza. Yes, that Tony Danza. It’s getting positive reviews so far, but after viewing the pilot, I’m unimpressed. To be fair, I embarked unimpressed: he teaches only one English class of a mere 26 sophomores who were screened by producers. Aside from the gross farcical underpinnings, those who edit film and do PR for Teach need to settle down. A patchwork of Danza close-ups are sewn in with scenes of him tearfully proclaiming that he’s “not sure if [he’s] up to it.”
One episode description teases that our protagonist is up against a “ball-busting principal.” The scene in question reveals a principal who matter-of-factly and reasonably states that nothing will get in the way of her students learning—not Danza, not this production. That speech makes the boxer-turned-actor-turned-teacher weep as well. At this point, I begin to wonder who wouldn’t be considered a ball-buster. Littered with screw-ups aplenty, the rest of the pilot does a better job of making Danza look incompetent than it does making teaching look as tough as it is.
The LA Times claims the show will “resonate with anyone who has or has ever been a high school student.” But even though the cameras are rolling and there are probably many genuine moments included, I simply cannot relate. My unsettled feeling after watching reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne: after publishing his first book, Hawthorne was so embarrassed by it that he attempted to retrieve and burn all copies. I was not inclined to assemble any pyres, but I certainly felt like sabotaging the network or something—anything to keep this big crybaby from infiltrating the airwaves and garnering empathy for all the wrong reasons.
Sure, I’ve blubbered abundantly in my five years of teaching (in fact, I did so last Monday night), but most of my tears come from students: the bright one who can’t go to college here because he walked over the border; the sweet one who turns everything in and never lets on that she sleeps in a car each night; the hardened one who never turns anything in but stays until dark each day so he won’t go home and get hit; the quiet one who finds courage to write about his murdered family. Their stories make me cry, and on occasion, the responsibility of teaching anything to people in those predicaments makes me cry. The timelines and pressures of state testing sometimes make me feel that no matter how compassionate I am, there is always an undertone of, Yes, that’s terrible that your family can’t buy food this week, but today we’re going to practice sentence patterns. I cry about not having enough time to be a human being for them.
Evidently, Danza faces a litany of challenges later in the season, including cheating and stealing. The indication is that since this behavior goes on “even with the cameras rolling” that the reality show is, in fact, realistic. But if it’s for real, tell me how a trained actor would open his first day thusly: “Welcome . . . welcome to the first day of school . . . I uh, I’m supposed to be here to uh, to be uh, your teacher. Your English teacher. Okay?” Ugh. Just give me some good ol’-fashioned innuendo and let me get back to teaching that’s true.