Monica Groves’ eyes well with tears when she recalls the day she cried in front of her sixth-grade class. She was just a few months into her first year of teaching, a sharp, enthusiastic 22-year-old fresh out of UVA in 2004.
The kids weren’t listening. Instead, they were talking, doing their own thing. She cared about them and worried about their grades. She worried about her own performance as a teacher. She had taken on a big challenge, teaching in an urban middle school where some of the students were struggling with broken homes and other distractions outside the classroom.
Groves started out talking calmly to her students, but then her voice cracked with emotion—too much emotion in retrospect. The kids turned solemn and silent, she says, and then they apologized.
“I know as a teacher now—and as someone who has more experience—I don’t ever want to put my kids in a position of feeling like the situation is not under control. That is what I regret,” she says of teaching, a career she at one time never pictured for herself.
Skip ahead to 2007. After going on to get her master’s degree in education from Harvard University last year, Groves could have taught school anywhere. Maybe one of those expensive private schools that are as big as college campuses. Or even a public school in a wealthy suburb.
Groves instead chose to teach in a public middle school. And not just any middle school, but the same school where she started. She went back to Atlanta’s Jean Childs Young Middle School, where she had been featured in the Dateline: NBC documentary, “The Education of Ms. Groves.”
The documentary—a spinoff series aired last year on the Sundance Channel—told the story of her rocky first year teaching through Teach for America, a Peace Corps-like program that sends promising college graduates to schools in low-income areas across the country.
One of Groves’ students in Atlanta lived in a cramped motel room with his mother and three younger siblings. Another cried one day as she told Groves her father was in jail. And a third student was moved to a foster home after teachers discovered his mother was abusing drugs.
Between 2004 and 2005, the cameras captured Groves struggling to keep her unruly students’ attention, breaking up a chaotic fistfight between two girls in her class and shedding tears in frustration. There were tender, happy moments, too, such as when she connected with her students in the classroom, hugged them and congratulated them for boosting their grades.
After Harvard, Groves chose to return to Young Middle School because it feels like home to her. She says she feels accepted there even though she had a vastly different childhood growing up in a middle-class family in Lansing, Mich.
Most importantly, returning to Atlanta is about payback for Groves. The school, she says, trained and trusted her, allowed the cameras inside her classroom and supported her during some of her darker moments.
“They invested in me,” Groves, now 25, says over coffee at a bookstore a short drive from her school in Atlanta. “So for me to leave to better myself as an educator and then go take that somewhere else—I didn’t feel right doing that.
“It is like you invested in me when I was inexperienced. Now that I am gaining more experience, I am going to reinvest it where you invested in me. That is why I had to be at Young.”
Returning to the school hasn’t been easy. She now teaches an eighth-grade class, which is full of many of the same students she taught during her second year, after the cameras had left Young Middle School. The documentary left her feeling exposed—her students saw it on television.
“I think the hardest thing with the students was building back up that professional distance, where I am the teacher and you are the student and I need you to respect me as such,” Groves says, “because they had seen a personal side of me that they haven’t seen with their other teachers.”
And to this day, Groves says, some of her students attempt to tease her by imitating her from the documentary.
But none of that teasing was on display during a recent afternoon in her classroom. Groves appeared in firm control of her two dozen eighth-graders. There were no emotional confrontations and raised voices as shown in the documentary.
She asked her students to write a sentence using alliteration. They were so quiet as they worked that the faint rattling of a miniature refrigerator in the corner could be heard in the dimly lit classroom.
The students quickly became engrossed in their next lesson, discussing a best-selling mystery novel, Silent to the Bone, by E.L. Konigsburg. Between reading passages aloud, they excitedly debated the plot. They stayed focused even as other students hollered and laughed outside in the hallways. With time running out in the class, they pleaded with Groves to let them finish reading the last few pages of the story.
At one point, Groves told a girl in her class to pull her sweater hood off her head. The girl quickly complied. She commanded a boy to stop chewing on a straw. He did. She directed her students to focus on the notes she was writing on the board. They did. Groves said these things in a calm, even voice with no hint of emotion, something she says she has been working on since her first year teaching.
“Part of my transition is learning how to take the emotion out of it and being the professional one in the room who is not reacting emotionally but who is being a disciplinarian,” she says. “Every year that is becoming more and more refined. I am less anxious. I am more secure in the role.”
Groves’ students say they have noticed a difference in her compared with her first year teaching them.
“She was a little strict, but now she is fun,” says Mykia Hurston, 13, as fellow students file out of the classroom at the end of the period. “She is like a big sister to us.”
Groves’ tidy classroom sits down the hall and around the corner from Principal Thomas Kenner’s office. Kenner admits that he wondered in 2004 whether Groves would make it as a teacher. She quickly made him a believer.
“She was pouring her heart into it,” says Kenner, a calming, fatherly figure at Young Middle School. “Either you have it [as a teacher], or you don’t. And she has it.”
Kenner didn’t expect her to return after Harvard, but he is glad she did. He praised her work ethic and her humility. She didn’t come back from Harvard acting like a know-it-all, he says.
“She is an incredibly easy teacher to work with,” Kenner says. “If I didn’t watch her, she would be here until eight or nine tonight.”
Many of the sixth-graders Groves taught in the documentary are now freshmen at Benjamin E. Mays High School just down the street. She says she still sees some of them because they have younger siblings attending her school.
For example, she regularly sees Drew, a quiet, inquisitive boy whom she pushed toward a gifted and talented program in sixth-grade. His younger brother is now a sixth-grader at Young Middle School.
“He is still quiet and subdued—doing well,” Groves says of Drew, adding that the gifted program “was a good move for him. Much better fit.”
She also keeps tabs on Stephen, the sweet, sensitive boy who was living in a cramped motel room with his mother and younger siblings. In the documentary, Stephen looks into the camera and says, “My mom calls me ‘dad’ and I’m like, ‘I’m just a little boy. How could I be man of the house?’”
Stephen is now enrolled in a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program and hopes to have the military pay for his education after high school, Groves says. She is concerned he might someday be deployed to a combat zone.
“I worry because he is trying to make it on his own,” she says. “He is making these choices that could affect his life and I understand, but it scares me. Stephen’s personality type is that of a good solider. He is quiet, reserved. He will do what he is told. It makes me a little nervous, but he is doing well.”
Groves still wonders about the troubled young boy who was pulled out of her class and sent to a foster home once school officials discovered that his mother was a drug abuser. In the documentary, Groves vowed to find him.
“More than anything, I want to give him a hug,” Groves confessed in a voice choked with emotion in the documentary.
Groves says she has tried unsuccessfully to find the boy since she returned to Young Middle School last year.
“I’m glad he was taken out of a bad situation because we were told he was not being cared for at all,” she says, adding: “I would have liked to continue to be a help to him. And I almost in a way felt cheated—‘We are trying to help this kid, but you are taking him out of this classroom?’”
Groves almost didn’t cross paths with any of these children. She says she initially wasn’t interested in teaching. At one point at UVA, Groves considered studying Spanish in Spain.
“That was one profession that I can recall saying, ‘No, I won’t ever do that,’” she says of teaching. “I would see the way kids gave their teachers such a hard time. And there is always somebody teasing you behind your back. I could never picture myself being in the front of the room with all these people staring at me. I just remember being like, ‘No I couldn’t do that.’”
Several experiences changed her mind. Groves worked as an intern in the Teach for America program at the University and had several friends who taught in the program. She came to admire her UVA professors, especially Angela Davis and David Gies. And it didn’t hurt that her family has a long history of teaching. Her paternal grandmother and great-aunt were both elementary school principals and teachers.
Groves, the younger of two daughters, says her parents were concerned about her going to teach in a public middle school with so many challenges.
Her father, Roger, talked to her about studying law instead.
“To be honest, I had mixed emotions,” her father says of her decision to teach. “At the same time, we had talked to [our daughters] from the time they were able to listen about how important it was to give back to the community and how good it is to have pride in oneself and where one came from and to follow a passion you have. All those things outweighed the parental trepidation.”
Roger Groves says his daughter eventually inspired him to teach law. He is now a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla.
Monica Groves says her decision to teach was also influenced by her superfriendly but demanding first-grade teacher, Ruthie Kamminga. The two reunited in an emotional scene in the documentary and have stayed in touch since. As a first-grader at Delta Center Elementary School, Groves “was so sweet always and had these cute little pigtails,” says Kamminga, now retired. “And she always wanted to do things well.”
Kamminga is touched that Groves considers her a positive influence. “I could almost cry right now,” she says. “That might be one of the biggest honors you could have in your teaching career.”
Looking back, Groves says the documentary has opened many doors for her. She says she has received hundreds of letters and e-mails from teachers who saw the program and related to her experience. Strangers, she says, recognize her from the documentary and stop her in public. And she has been invited to speak about her experience at teacher conferences.
Groves says she is particularly thankful for how the documentary helped her reflect on herself and grow.
“That is one thing that needs to be part of the teaching profession anyway,” she says. “They always talk about recording, videotaping and reflecting and looking back. Well, that is an exercise I have been engaging in now for three years, and I am really grateful for it.”
The experience has also caused some changes on the outside for Groves. She looks different from her debut on television. Her hair is shoulder-length now. Her hair was about that long before she arrived in Atlanta. But she cut it short on her way to Young Middle School, she says, to signify she was about to enter a new chapter in her life. She started letting her hair grow longer in her second year teaching, after the cameras left her classroom.
Then last year, she says, she left Harvard armed with new teaching skills and greater confidence about going back to the classroom. The education of Ms. Groves is continuing, she says. Now in her third year in the classroom, she is still learning how to teach, how to keep her emotions in check.
Meanwhile, she is dreaming about writing children’s books, publishing new middle school curricula and becoming a school administrator one day. But she says she isn’t ready to make big changes any time soon. She feels comfortable with who she is and where she is—back with her kids in the classroom.