"I felt a tremendous responsibility to make sure that we didn’t get anywhere near exploitation," Danza says. "We’ve got kids here. This is my show, but it’s their 10th grade."
Northeast High School agreed to let Danza teach one class of 26 handpicked students twice a day. A master teacher was always in the classroom, along with three cameras and crew. A camera also followed Danza around the school. Otherwise, Danza received no special privileges. He had to clock in by 7:30 each morning, submit a weekly lesson plan, correct papers, attend meetings of his teaching group and, from time to time, cover for other teachers.
Danza’s classroom became a favorite hangout for students, some of whom revealed their stories through their poetry-contest entries.
Danza gave the students a day in class to work on their poems. He recalls wandering around the room and peeking over one girl’s shoulder.
"Her poem was about a deadbeat father," says Danza, a father of four. "She’s writing, `I was the unwanted daughter. I looked for you at my graduation and you weren’t there.’ I got a little teary-eyed and I tried to walk away, and she says, `Are you crying?’ I said, `No, I’m not crying,’ and with that two other kids said, `You’re a crybaby, Mr. Danza.'"
Danza thinks he connected with his students. He credits his success to the teaching techniques he learned, the help he received from his colleagues and a few of his own ideas.
"What I have been trying to do is relate everything to their lives" he says. "What I’m teaching them is not just knowledge. It’s all these important life lessons. In To Kill a Mockingbird every single lesson in it is a life lesson — you know, walk in another guy’s skin, make the best of a bad situation and there’s good in everybody even though there might be some bad."
A year in the classroom has sharpened Danza’s understanding of America’s education problems. Teaching, he says, is a tough job made even more difficult by people who lay all the blame for the education system’s shortcomings on teachers without ever having prepared a lesson plan or stood in front of a group of hormonal, sometimes angry, usually rambunctious teenagers. For their part, the students must deal with peer and media pressure that sometimes glorifies bad behavior.
"I’m here telling kids that good behavior will pay off," he says. "And then they watch television and see bad behavior paying off and they tell me I’m crazy."
Danza believes that parents are the key to turning the situation around. Without their participation in public education, he says, developing a culture of education in America will be impossible. The nation’s schools will continue to struggle to attain lasting success.
"I do think a large percentage of our parents are not as involved as they should be in their kids’ education," Danza says. "You can’t just tell your kid to go to school. You have to tell them why they are there and what they should be doing. You have got to tell your kid to do their best in school."
For now, Danza’s teaching career is over. But the school, the kids, even the city remain in his heart.
"I’m really part of something here," he says. "Northeast is one of the great schools, with a lot of great people trying very hard. I’m a Viking. I love it."
And yes — he cried when he left.