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To Ed Policy-Makers: Take the Danza Challenge

Since before the Common Core State Standards were just a flicker in David Coleman’s eyes, education reformers with no experience as public school teachers have been trying–within increasing success–to impose their ideas onto public schools.

Many working educators, particularly teachers who work constantly with students, wonder how those without any experience doing the job could possibly do a good job of creating curriculum or education policy. Think about it: all military leaders have been through basic training; all union leaders have been “on the line;” all bishops have been priests; all principals have been teachers. There’s a symmetry of experience here that makes sense.

Elected officials are not expected to be experts in everything; but, they are expected to surround themselves with experts who will lead efforts in their areas of expertise and advise the elected official on the matter. But on education for too many years and under democratic and republican administrations, education leadership (especially education reform) has lacked any genuine expertise.

An Unlikely Model: Tony Danza

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to meet with Tony Danza who had recently published a book about his year-long experience teaching in a high-needs district in Philadelphia. The meeting never happened, as the actor had a fall on his roller-blades a few days before and wound up in the hospital. But the meeting gave me the impetus to read his book, which I confess is not something I’d have probably done otherwise. (There was also a television show, which received some very harsh criticism, and some criticism that praised his efforts, even though they failed to make good TV or to show good teaching.) I thought he book, however, was actually a very thoughtful and endearing read–and I’m not the only one.

Danza taught a tenth-grade English class for a full year under the tutelage of a fully-certified teacher, and during that year he experienced many of the challenges that classroom teachers face. He saw the extreme impact of poverty, encountered gang issues, hard-nosed apathy from students, being out of his depth, and utter exhaustion. And he taught only one class each day!

After a few months the cameras left, as the director and producers found the show was not going to be entertaining enough, but to his great credit, Danza remained for the full year, out of the spotlight and in the real classroom. His book is full of missteps and the “wisdom” he offers is a bit quaint for experienced teachers; but, it is pretty amazing to watch a bright, confident, accomplished person really experience the job of teaching and come completely around on how hard it is and how much expertise it takes. When Danza named his book, it expressed the fact that he now understands the enormous amount of stamina, intelligence, patience, and energy being a good teacher requires. As a result, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had has my respect as an educator.

To hear him give a brief discussion of his experience, check out Mr. Danza’s video about his year teaching.

All Education Leaders Without Real Teaching Experience Should Take The Danza Challenge

I realize that not all education leaders have the time to take a full year from their other work to teach. But, should education leaders–particularly those who are paid with public dollars or who have significant impact on those public dollars–be permitted to shape education without having experienced it as a professional educator? No, of course not.

To address this deficiency in many ed leaders’ backgrounds, I propose The Danza Challenge: Find an ordinary, probably high-needs public school (not a charter school), select a class to teach, and under the tutelage of a certified, professional teacher, teach for at least six weeks. No special treatment, no research assistance, no publicity, no special classes or help. One teacher, one class, one certified teacher. Go! 

Is six weeks asking too much from people who are going to shape education nationally? I don’t think so. If Tony Danza–an actor with no political ambitions–did a full year, they can do six weeks.

Why Take The Danza Challenge?

The Danza Challenge would offer the following benefits:

  • Education leaders would experience a real-world classroom, bringing them insight into the daily workload and challenges real teachers face.
  • They would understand the kind of exhaustion that comes from teaching. It’s not like on television and in movies. It is grueling work.
  • They would appreciate the advanced level of intelligence and expertise it takes to teach a room full of students effectively, particularly when that room full of students includes a dramatically wide range of student abilities and backgrounds.
  • They would get a better sense of the awesome responsibility real teachers have. Education reform in the board room is one thing. Actually seeing the living, breathing young students–looking into their faces, seeing their eyes as you implement pedagogical strategies and make decisions about cutting or funding services–is something completely different.
  • They would learn much more about the real challenges real students face. It’s not just about behaving well in class or getting the “best” teacher. Students’ needs are vast and complicated.
  • They would earn a modicum of respect from teachers. In six weeks, it would be just a modicum, but that’s a good start.

Earning Humility

Six weeks in the classroom will not give anyone the legitimate experience to claim that they have been a teacher. It’s not enough time. So no one should think of what I’m calling “The Danza Challenge” as a way that non-teachers can suddenly start claiming they are teachers. Instead, the hope here is that education leaders with no experience as teachers will begin to empathize with real teachers. Education leaders should come to understand the awesome task that is teaching, and ultimately education leadership should develop a strong dose of something that’s been missing: Humility.

Education leaders, particularly education reformers, have not been listening enough to real teachers, those in the trenches doing the actual work of education. Anyone who is going to have influence on education policy or practice should walk in the shoes of real educators for at least six weeks. At that point, we can hope those leaders understand what they do not know and they should develop a disposition to run all their ideas past real educators for substantial feedback and probably very deep revision.

The Danza Challenge won’t solve all the problems in education policy, but asking education policy-makers to walk in the shoes of real teachers may be a few steps in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “To Ed Policy-Makers: Take the Danza Challenge”

  1. Todd Finley – United States – Edutopia blogger and associate professor.

    This is a great piece, Ken! I always enjoy your blog posts.


    From: edukention
    Reply-To: edukention
    Date: Thursday, December 22, 2016 at 8:05 AM
    To: Todd Finley
    Subject: [BULK] [New post] To Ed Policy-Makers: Take the Danza Challenge

    edukention posted: “Since before the Common Core State Standards were just a flicker in David Coleman’s eyes, education reformers with no experience as public school teachers have been trying–within increasing success–to impose their ideas onto public schools. Many workin”

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