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Danza, known from TV's <i>Taxi</i> and <i>Who's the Boss?</i>, teaches 10th-graders in Philadelphia.
Danza, known from TV's Taxi and Who's the Boss?, teaches 10th-graders in Philadelphia. / Courtesy of Thinkfactory Media/Barbara Johnston
Danza is the author of I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had (Crown Archetype, $24), on sale Sept. 11. / Random House, Inc.

Advice for kids

• Get off to a good start. Build yourself a cushion with good grades at the beginning. It will make the year so much easier. Like a baseball player who starts the season in a slump, a student who begins slowly finds it very hard to catch up.

• Budget your time. It’s possible to be a good student and also have a great time in school.

• See your high school education as your job. Your job is to pay attention in class, study and learn.

• Get involved in extra-curricular activities at your school: clubs, sports, plays, music. This will add to your experience and make you want to be in school.

• Hang out with kids who are doing well and who take school seriously.

• Take an active part in your own education.

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There are at least two harder jobs than acting — one is teaching and the other is writing a book about teaching. I’ve now done both, having gone toe-to-toe with a class of Philadelphia 10th-graders for an entire year and then written about it. And, let me tell you, when it comes to teaching, perfection is elusive.

The question I still wrestle with is, “In the midst of a tough economy and continuous budget cutting, how do we send a message to students that being in school and making the most of their time there is important?”

Everyone knows we have a problem. By every education metric, we’re no longer No. 1 in the world. Dropout rates in many districts approach 50%, and some estimates put the number of dropouts at more than 1 million a year. How do we sustain a great country with those numbers? Education has become a national security issue. If we don’t get our schools right, we won’t have the labor force or the soldiers we’ll need in the future.

A parent doesn’t always think that way, though. A parent asks, justifiably, how do I help my kid?

There’s one important thing I learned in the trenches at Northeast High in Philadelphia: Teachers have no problem being held accountable by parents. In fact, they crave parent involvement.

If parents do nothing else, they should persuade their sons and daughters to take part in their own education. Kids should hear the message loud and clear: “You have one life, and this small part of it will make all the difference.”

And parents, you should walk the talk by showing up for the play, the debate, the science fair. There were evenings when, as an English teacher hosting an open house for parents, I stood mostly alone.

Parents have to be involved because we live in a culture that bombards us every day with messages that are antithetical to education. For example, and not to pick on one TV show, but I would tell my students that good behavior and hard work pays off — then these kids would go home and watch Jersey Shore and come back and tell me I had it wrong. Often, the role model a kid looks to isn’t the father who goes to work every day, but the reality star or rapper who sells Chryslers or the banker who makes a fortune in a system that seems rigged.

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We have to convince kids that, despite the formidable obstacles they often face, it’s imperative that they do well in school. As a society, we have to make it cool to be smart. And kids have to understand that it’s their responsibility to do well — no matter who their teacher is or the quality of their school.

The bottom line: Kids need to want it. We can’t want them to get an education more than they want it for themselves.

All I can do individually is tell my children — and any kid who’ll listen — that the world they face will require their best. They’ll need skills to survive and thrive in this new world. I can make it my business to know what my children are watching on TV and on the Internet and be relentless in hammering home the importance of this bit of their lives.

We all have a role to play in this, but when I was in teacher orientation, I constantly heard that teachers must “engage” the students. After a year of teaching, it strikes me that what we really need are students to engage in their own education.

Danza is the author of I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had (Crown Archetype, $24), on sale Sept. 11.

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