The last time actor and performer Tony Danza made a public appearance in Houston, he was tap dancing and inspiring audiences with his one-man show, “Standards and Stories” at Hermann Park.
His most recent Houston visit found him again inspiring an audience — this time, however, at the prestigious St. John’s School — and in an entirely different role: one of a teacher.
The star best known for memorable TV turns on Taxi and Who’s the Boss made a late-life career change, becoming a teacher in 2009 and leading a tenth-grade class in Philadelphia’s gritty Northeast High School. He shared his story with an eager crowd at Breakthrough Houston’s “Envision a Bright Future” luncheon. This year’s event was chaired by Kelli Kickerillo and Todd Forester, Sarah and Richard Punches, and Vicky and Gordon Wight, and raised $200,000 for Breakthrough’s educational efforts.
Breakthrough Houston prepares students with high academic potential, but limited educational resources, for competitive high schools and college admission. The group utilizes a “students-teaching-students” model, thereby training college and high school students for careers in education. Breakthrough Houston students at Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, St. John’s School, and Connect Community schools attend tuition-free.
“I’m here for the Kickerillos,” Danza joked to CultureMap at a meet-and-greet before the luncheon, an appreciative Vincent Kickerillo nodding in return. Danza, donned in a smart suit and comfortable sneakers, chatted with VIPs and elbow-bumped visitors — a clear sign of coronavirus etiquette. He shared his concern for kids and modern influences, such as music and social media.
“I was the first kid in my family to go to college and I made some of the worst choices. We grew up on love songs, and look how we turned out,” he offered, only somewhat kidding. “What about poor, black, 15-year-olds now? I just feel we have a communal responsibility to raise our kids.”
At the luncheon, Danza was introduced by Breakthrough Houston's Executive Director Kathy Heinzerling and teaching fellow Daniel Koh, a Rice University senior who won over the crowd with his passion for teaching young minds.
Danza then regaled the more than 400-person crowd with his journey from recognized actor and TV host to teacher — a trek covered in the A&E reality series Tony Danza: Teach and later in his book, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, published in 2012.
Erudite and refreshingly frank, Danza revealed his late-life crisis and how he quickly flipped the script. “I was dealing with a couple of regrets and I could smell 60,” he shared. When he lost out on a live talk show opportunity and was disheartened, he found the “romantic notion” of teaching. He told friends about his idea “to keep me accountable,” and joined Teach for America.
By 2009, he was in a Philadelphia classroom, where he taught for 181 days. Those days found him followed by reality TV cameras for one semester and at times, bursting into tears in disappointment: “I ran into the hall, tears in my eyes, and saw my colleagues.” The probing TV cameras actually helped his cause one day: He noted that he actually caught kids cheating when watching the playbacks.
There were downers, “I learned I had to attend detention, too,” and all-out joy, such as “the moments I knew I had made a difference.”
Danza reflected on the time when some of his advice hit home with a challenging, 15-year-old student, Algernon, who quoted his line: “Make the most of a bad situation.” The actor has since been instrumental in getting his students into acting classes at State University of New York - Purchase College.
While self-effacing and humble, Danza was serious and purposeful at the close, as he thanked Breakthrough Houston, the audience for its support of the organization, and urged that education be a “national priority.’
“Having Tony Danza speak at the Breakthrough Houston luncheon was very important to us because it enabled us to highlight the second part of our mission: To inspire and train the next generation of teachers,” said Heinzerling. “The lessons he learned as a novice teacher in the classroom were so similar to the experiences of the Breakthrough Houston college aged teachers during their six weeks in the classroom with middle school students.”
Notable guests included: HISD Chief Strategy and Innovation officer Rick Cruz; HISD Assistant Superintendent Jarrett Bryantt; State Representative Anna Eastman; the Cullen Foundation’s Laura Chapman and Scott Wise; director of Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, Judy Radigan; Rice University’s associate dean of education, Jennifer Gigliotti; University of Houston’s Honors College dean, Bill Monroe; St. John’s School headmaster, Mark Desjardins; president of the Unicef USA board, Susan Boggio; Snapstream CEO, Rakesh Agrawal; regional president of PNC Financial Services, Julie Young Sudduth; and local philanthropists Nicole and Evan Katz, Karen Arnold, Carolyn Dorros, Jennifer Laporte, Vanessa Sanchez, Liz Stepanian, Jennifer Ligums, Cabrina Owsley, and Kristy Bradshaw.