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  1. Headline
By Hoda Kotb Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/13/2008 9:38:46 PM ET 2008-06-14T01:38:46

August 8, 2004. Jean Childs Young middle school.
It’s the day before the storm for 21-year-old English teacher Monica Groves.

Monica Groves, first-time teacher: I’ve never before felt so strongly about something. I’m extremely excited about meeting my students. And I haven’t met them yet, but I already love them.

Growing up in a stable middle-class household in Lansing, Michigan, Monica was often the only minority student in her class. Now she’ll be teaching sixth grade in a school that is 99 percent African-American.

Groves: I want my students to see themselves represented in me. But I’ve come from a very privileged background. So in that sense, even though our skin color might be the same, my experiences are drastically different from theirs.

Just a few months ago, Monica was still a student at the University of Virginia. Her father wanted her to go to law school, but Monica joined “Teach for America,” a prestigious education-focused organization that recruits some of the most accomplished college graduates in the country to teach in low-income communities.

Groves: I can’t get up in front of the class room on Monday and be scared and timid. It’s either I’m up there doing it or I’m not.

She has no teaching degree and only five weeks of training, but Monica is confident she is ready to be a leader.

Groves: When they come to my class I’m really going to be setting the tone for them for their middle-school years. And I want that to be a positive tone, I want it be comforting, I want it to be exciting...

Monica has a plan for success. The question is: does she have a plan B?

In the following months, Monica’s authority will be challenged.

And soon she’ll have to choose what kind of a teacher she should be. What kind of a teacher... she can be.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: If you had to just give like a one-sentence on what you hope to teach all your kids, what is it?

Groves: That if you push yourself and you strive to be better, each day you’ll become better than you ever thought you could.

It is a lesson Monica herself learned early in life... from her first grade teacher.

Groves: I’ll never forget her: Mrs. Kamminga, first grade. Her demeanor was so supportive. And she made you want to be better. Not everybody can do it, this connection that happens where they can actually inspire you without you knowing.

Kotb: So is your goal to be Mrs. Kamminga - good?

Groves: Yes. Mrs. Kamminga was phenomenal.

To follow in the footsteps of a role model. Easier said than done. Especially given Monica’s ambitious goal: she wants at least 80 percent of her students to get a final class grade of “B” or above. That is double the average of a regular sixth grade class at Monica’s school.

Principal Thomas Kenner will evaluate Monica throughout the school year.

Principal Thomas Kenner: The first thing I told her was, “Don’t lose your enthusiasm and don’t allow anyone to take that away from you.”

August 9th: The first day of school.

Kenner: Kids come in on Monday morning, they’re going to be alert, they’re going to be bright, they’re going to be eager. And they’re also going to size up that teacher.

Groves: Welcome to sixth grade. I want you guys to be excited because I’m very very excited to see you guys. My name is Ms. Groves...

The first period, the first introduction...  and there are five more periods and many more students to go— 83 in all!

Monica’s first assignment reflects her high expectations: write a poem, tell me who you are.

As Monica is reading these words, the students who wrote them are just three faces of many. Their paths will invariably cross in ways Monica cannot yet anticipate.

September 10th, a month into Monica’s first school year
Not all is going as planned in her sixth grade English class. Monica is noticing her students are often distracted, talkative, especially when her back is turned.

Monica Groves: I want my kids to like me. I want this to be a supportive, loving environment. But more than that I just want you to sit down and I wanna see that you’re getting this.

A few weeks later, just after lunch. Monica is having trouble getting her students into the class room. The next day? Same problem. For one of the first times, Monica sees no choice but to scream at her students.

Monica Groves (in classroom): You guys think I’m not serious? is that it? when I say something, do you think it’s optional? It’s not optional!

Groves: I’m really trying to just set the tone of “I’m not playing around” because I realize there’s a level of disrespect in my classroom that should not be there and will not be there.

Meet Mayah, who in her poem described herself as a “girl on fire.” She is one of Monica’s biggest trouble makers.

Today, Monica catches her wandering the hallway without permission. And things are not much better inside the classroom.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: Did you not do your homework here? [Mayah hesitates] Don’t lie to me.

Mayah: Well, I didn’t do my homework as much as I should.

There is a reason for Mayah’s behavior and lack of work ethic. But Monica doesn’t know to ask. And Mayah...at least for now...is not willing to tell.

Monday, October 11th
An essay is due. Mayah, once again, didn’t do it. But she’s not alone.

Groves (in class): Raise your hand if you don’t have your homework today I want you to raise your hands...This is ridiculous. Do you know how frustrating it is for me? When I’m trying my best to make sure that you are doing what you need to do in order to be successful and you can’t even bring in a simple assignment. And this is every day.

Monica thinks she has her students’ attention, for once. Wrong.

Groves: When you’re in a class room as a student and you’re constantly talking, it’s not acceptable behavior! Are you hearing me?!

Groves: I didn’t expect for it to feel like such a fight, such a struggle. Either you attack the day or it attacks you. And it beats you down.

Monica finds some relief in coaching the school’s cheerleading team...

And of course not every class is a bad class. Here Monica is teaching grammar through song. And her students respond.

Groves: We have our successes and there are times when I’m just, I’m very proud of them, I’m proud of myself. But overall, I want to see myself accomplishing more. I want to see them accomplishing more.

Monica knows many of her students come from poor families, more than half are being raised by a single parent. Some live in extremely dysfunctional environments. These kids are tough to reach—especially for a young teacher who’s 5 foot 2 and weighs about a hundred pounds.

Kotb: That’s not a very intimidating presence.

Groves: It’s not, you know.  They call me "Little Big Miss Groves." They’ll say, “Ms. Groves, you’re so short.” They don’t want to get me mad. But they also don’t fear the consequences of if they get me mad.

October 20th
In her quest for silence, Monica is getting increasingly frustrated and louder.

Groves: I don’t wanna be dealing with the same things that I was dealing with in week 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Right now I feel like there’s a lot wasted energy. I feel like that’s where my frustration comes from. I think that’s where that’s where the shortness with the kids comes from. Because I just “Don’t want you to do it. Stop.”

But later that evening at home... Monica is having second thoughts.

Groves (Video diary): Oh my gosh. Today the guilt, the guilt. Oh, my gosh. I am an official, officially going through a tyrant stage.

I’m trying to control the situation so much that I end up sabotaging it. Because I spend more time, kind of yelling and correcting and discussing things that we can’t do anymore than just taking a moment to teach...And I’m seriously a tyrant.

This is not the teacher Monica envisioned herself to be. This is not the teacher she wants to become.

Groves: I have those moments where I’m overwhelmed. But I almost have a fear of even thinking about it too much. I just know how destructive I can be to myself because I’ve been there. I’ve done that before. And I shut down. And I don’t have the option of shutting down here.

It is almost November, and Monica is afraid her visible anger and frustration at her student’s lack of progress will push them away. She wants them to respond to her the way she responded to her favorite teacher. But how?

Monica Groves: With Ms. Kamminga I never felt, “She doesn’t like me today.” I felt, “I dissapointed Ms. Kamminga, I better get it together.”

Monica, of course, has her share of students who “have it all together.”

Meet Drew. Monica has been noticing him ever since she read his autobiographical poem.

Video: Drew's poem

Groves: In him I can see two directions. Either what he has can blossom, can go, can just explode, or it can become dormant.

Monica decides to nominate Drew for the school’s highly selective gifted program.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: Why do you want to get into the gifted program?

Drew: It’ll be more of a challenge to me.

Kotb: But it’s not easy to get into that gifted program, now is it?

Drew: No. We have to take a lot of tests.

Is he up to the challenge? It’s December 10th, just a month after the nomination and Monica’s disappointed to find out he hasn’t finished the most important book report of the first semester.

Groves: Why didn't you have assignment?

Drew: [doesn’t answer].

Groves: I expect much better from you.

Monica calls Drew’s home. There’s no mom on the other end of the line; Monica finds out she died five years ago. No father either — he’s absent. It’s Drew’s grandma who’s raising him and his two brothers.

Kotb: Do you have an iron fist when you rule this roost?

Drew’s grandma: I’ll admit to you sometimes I come in here, you know, and I’ll tell a boy what I mean and I mean for him to do it now.  And sometimes I have to get them a little close to me to tell it to them.

The rules of grandma’s household: two hours of homework or reading each night. Keep your room clean. Go to church on Sunday.

Kotb: Do you mind me asking how old you are?

Grandma: Well, now usually I don’t tell my age, especially on public television, you know that’s—that’s asking a lady a whole lot, but—let’s say that I’m past 75, over 75 and I’m not 90, so—

Kotb: The fact that you are of this age and here you are raising kids, all over again?

Grandma: Well I’ll tell you this:  It’s not what I had planned at all. And it’s not what I would choose to do, but if this is what I need to do, I just feel like I just get up and do it the best I can.

Kotb: What do you think of her?

Drew: She...She has a lot of love in her.

Back in the classroom Monica is having a tough time showing her love. It wasn’t only Drew—more than half her students failed to bring in that final book report.

But en route to another outburst Monica stops herself. This time she decides to recite a poem—Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” Words of inspiration. Right now, it’s what Monica needs herself.

A boy sitting in the back of the class is listening intently to Monica’s words—Stephen. Monica knows him as a solid “B” student who turns in all his work, but not much more than that.

Groves: I feel like he has so many layers. And I feel like I still don’t know him, but he intrigues me. 

If Monica would peel away the layers she would find that the boy “who has a bird next door,” doesn’t have much. Not even a home. Stephen, his single mom and three younger siblings are living in a small hotel room.

Kotb: Where do you do your homework?

Stephen: Sometimes I do it in a car on the way to the hotel, or sometimes I do it on the bed with my face turned to the wall. I don’t wanna get distracted with my work.

Stephen’s mom is on disability. She is a cancer survivor and has been in and out of hospitals for years.

Stephen: I have to help her a lot cuz she cries in the night?

Kotb: She cries at night?

Stephen: Yes. I’m always up in the middle of the night trying to help her the best I can.

Kotb: So you’re kind of the man of the house?

Stephen: Yes. My mom calls me that. I’m like, I’m just a little boy, how can I be man of the house?

Just before Christmas, Stephen receives some good news. A public housing agency has found his family a new home.

But move-in day turns into another day of sadness. An inspector tells Stephen’s mom the house is uninhabitable.

Whether his mother’s tears affect Stephen or not, he doesn’t show it.

It is a couple of days before winter break. The school band is practicing a Christmas tune. Back in the hotel room with his family, Stephen is confident his ordeal will soon end.

Stephen: If you don’t have any doubt in your heart, you can do great things. My mother said that to me, and I’m saying that in my head every time. I says: “Don’t doubt anything. Don’t doubt anything. Don’t doubt anything.”

And there is someone else who’s giving Stephen hope... inspiring him without even knowing it.

Stephen: Ms. Groves. She always smiles. Even if she’s a little sad, she always has a little happy in her voice.

It’s report card time... and Monica will need all the optimism she can muster.

Monica Groves: Today is your final exam. So there is absolutely no talking, no rough housing, nothing. This is a serious day because a final exam really does determine your grade.

December 15th: The last week of the first semester. It is now been more than four months since Monica met her students with such great expectations.

She grades the exams at home.

More exams and more failing grades: More than half of Monica’s students get a “D” or worse.

Monica Groves: I keep asking myself: Did I set them up to fail? Did I not teach enough, did I not teach well enough? Did I not give enough review?

Monica’s ambitious goal of 80 percent at “B” or above suddenly it seems unattainable.

Monica needs the kids to do better and she needs them to do it fast.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: How much gas is left in your tank right now?

Groves: I would say a quarter of a tank. I guess the reason I say that is because there’s so much emotion that goes into my teaching... there so much and I know that they don’t know it. And half the time I don’t know it. I love my kids and a lot of the stress that I go through is me wanting to make sure that I’m giving them everything that they need and me wanting to make sure that I’m stepping up for them. And that becomes a semester of just being like, “Not good enough, not good enough, not good enough. You could do this better,” or like, “Damn, you should not have yelled at that kid.” It becomes, you know, it becomes emotionally draining...

Kotb, to Principal Kenner: She looks to me to be close to an early burnout. Are you concerned about that?

Kenner: Yeah, I’m always concerned about that. I don’t see the signs of such frustration yet that I think, “boy, this is gonna be a hopeless case.”

Principal Kenner has been meeting with Monica to help her develop new teaching strategies.

Kenner: If raising your voice is not something that you’re comfortable with you got to find a different way. We’re gonna work on going there with you.

The end of a disappointing first semester that once held so much promise is a turning point for Monica. She must find her voice as a teacher...now more than ever. At stake: nothing less than the success of her students.

Groves (Video diary): This is my mission, this is my goal, and that’s personal. But also sometimes my anger is personal, my frustration is personal, when I’m tired it’s personal, everything is too personal...I have to remove some of that. It’s too personal.

I need to get control of my thoughts and my frustrations and I need to be that teacher that they can come to every day and know: “This is Ms. Groves, this is what I can expect.” And I need to let them have the emotional moments. Not me.

January brings the hopeful beginning of a new semester but Monica’s at a dead end with Mayah. Anger, frustration, outright pleas — nothing has worked to motivate her. 

At a parent conference for failing students, Monica meets Mayah’s mom, where she finds out Mayah was an “A” and “B” student.

Groves: And something told me, “just ask.” Because maybe even though you’ve been pushing, you haven’t really been asking, “why?”

Mayah: There was a lot of drama at my house. I wasn’t able to get all my work done stuff like that ‘cause my dad, he was in jail. A lot of stuff was going on…

Monica learns that for the last five months Mayah’s dad has been in prison.

Groves: And she said my dad has been jail and I felt really silly at that point because she just flat out gave me the reason of “I’m struggling emotionally. And I’ve been acting out in school. And I couldn’t focus.” And that was information that I didn’t have.

February 3rd, a month later
Perhaps the most dramatic classroom scene of the entire year. And Mayah is right in the middle of it— a fight breaks out between Mayah and another girl in class.

Groves: When I approached them, I was imagine, thinking “Ok, the worst is over. I’m here now. And, wait a minute, can’t get them apart!” Finally I was able to redirect Mayah to the seat. And I was really angry with her.

Kotb: Are you realizing that there are some kids who you can’t reach?

Groves: If anybody were to think that, it should not be your teacher. It should not be your teacher who resorts to that way of thinking.

Mayah is suspended. With only three months left in the school year, her chances of passing Monica’s class - in fact all of sixth grade - are slim.

And Monica is wondering—is time running out for herself as well?

Groves: The reality is what your students are able to do is a direct reflection of your teaching. It really makes me nervous, because it’s hard to face your faults.

March  22, 2005
Eight weeks before the end of the school year.

Monica Groves (in class): My goal is to not raise my voice once to you. Not once...

Monica is a teacher intent on learning from her mistakes.

Monica Groves:  I realized that first semester, the kids knew that, “Oh, if we just kinda do this and get disrupted, the whole lesson’s gonna stop" and Ms. Groves is just going to talk about behaving.

Monica has made significant changes in the way she instructs her students. Now, if you misbehave in Ms. Groves’ class, expect your parents to get a phone call.

Groves: If you miss a homework assignment, expect your name to go on a special chart and your grade on another...for all eyes to see.I will post your percentage. You will be able to see, “Have I kept my high grade or am I losing my high grade?"

Groves: I realized, number one, tracking is not only good for me, but it’s good for the students. I see them motivated. I see them running over the check their grade. And they seem like they have a reason to work.

Ms. Groves will be tough on you. But if you work hard, if you try to reach your potential, you can expect to hear the praise.

You can expect to feel the love... and see the pride in your teacher’s eyes.

It is quiet in Monica’s class. And paving the way to silence — a journey seven months in the making — has been exhausting.

Groves: That’s an obstacle that I didn’t think would be so major, is just the energy and the discipline it takes as a teacher to come in every day and put on a consistent face...

Kotb: Mrs. Kamminga.

Groves: Yeah, Ms. Kamminga, my first-grade teacher.

Kotb: Right, I mean you said that she was very consistent. You always knew.

Groves: Extremely, extremely consistent.

Principal Kenner is observing Monica.

Principal Kenner: Your countdown method, the 5-4-3-2-1, they responded to that. I think those are great interventions that do not conflict and take away from instruction and I commend you because again I know that is a tough group.

Judging by the results of the standardized state exam that Monica’s students took in the spring, Monica still has a long way to go. Although on par with the achievement of previous years, they are below what Monica and her school expect.

Groves (in class): Right now we have 48 percent of our team at a “B” or above.

But despite all the setbacks, Monica has not given up on her goal of guiding 80 percent of her students to a final grade of “B” or above... and she challenges her students to believe that they can achieve it.

This is Mayah’s goal. If she fails Monica’s class, she might have to repeat sixth grade. Drew is aiming higher. To stay on track for the gifted program he needs an “a.” and Stephen...he’s quietly determined to make the honor roll.

The first step: Complete all of homework assignments including the last major book report of the year. Fewer than half of Monica’s students handed it in last semester...

And most important: the final exam. Just before it Monica gives her students a pep talk.

Groves: Listen to what I’m saying, when we grade that test, every single one of you will have 100%.

More than half of Monica’s student got a “D” or worse on the last one...has Monica done enough this time to help them pass?

Groves: I don’t wanna look back and be like, “Oh my first batch of kids. Oh man, I messed them up?” You know, I do not want to look at those test scores and feel failure. Especially because I’m doing my very best. You know, the reality that my best may not have been good enough... is scary.

It is April 2005, only eight months since a bright-eyed Monica embarked on her teaching journey full of enthusiasm and naivety.

They are eight months that Monica calls her baptism by fire. How will she emerge from the flames? How will her students?

Mayah: I was kind of shaky...

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: ’s ?

Mayah: I had one or two. But now I’m on track. I got all my work, I’m getting all my work done.

Mayah (checking the 'missing homework list'): Nope, my name ain’t on there.

It’s true. Mayah’s name is not on the rather crowded missing assignments board. So what has changed? It’s simple, really. After five months in prison...daddy’s back.

Mayah: Me and my father are like, we’re like twins.

Kotb: What did you think when he went to jail.

Mayah: I was sad. Cause he’s like my best friend too. So I was sad. And when he came back, when he came back home, I was sleeping and he tapped on my leg. And I just saw him and I just jumped up. And I was just so happy.

Kotb: He loves you hard, doesn’t he? You’re lucky. Do you feel lucky?

Mayah: Yeah.

Mayah’s father (at a PTA conference, to Maya): You’re going to do better, right? Because we’re not going to tolerate this. You come to school to learn...

Groves: You can tell that she wants more than anything to make him proud. And when he became involved immediately there was just something else on the line for her, and you could see it.

Mayah’s father:  The next time I come down here you better be getting some awards and being commended for something. Cause I don’t wanna have these behavior problems, ok?

Will Mayah be able to improve her grade? Will her classmates?

It is May 4th. The book reports are due.

Groves: Throughout the course of the year, different projects, I’d have such a little stack. And it would just be so frustrating because I’m like, “I know how smart you are, but you have to show me!” And I got a full stack of beautiful book reports...

Not only have most students turned in their book reports, the quality of their work is high. And as Monica is ecstatic to find out, so are the scores of their final exam.

Monica’s goal for 80% of her students at a “B” or above. As Monica calculates her students’ final grades, she realizes ...they did it. They rose to the challenge.

Groves: It was a huge moment because I needed that validation. I needed some type of progress. And that’s the thing that’s beautiful about this whole experience—that there has been. I may not be when you thought it was gonna come. I may not have been when you wanted it. But it happened.

As Stephen and his family endure month after month without a home, he is desperately waiting for a huge moment of his own. 

Stephen: We kept praying every morning, for reliable transportation, and to live in a house fit for us. All of our hopes were down and we didn’t know what would happen next.

And all of a sudden: A newly built house, with a room for Stephen.

Stephen: I feel more quiet and reflective. It just helps me to think about what we have gone through and how we got this.

The year has been quite a journey for Stephen. His family was there for him when it got rough. And so, without realizing it, was his teacher.

Stephen: She gave me a lot of knowledge, the things that I’ll need to go on through my life with. She gave me more hope about myself...

Groves: I didn’t always think that kids would believe what I was saying, but it always just inspired me to realize that the things that I said mattered to them. They listen. They listen to what you say.

More than a third of Monica’s students make the honor roll. Among them, Stephen. As always—quiet, resilient, proud.

Drew is there too. He fully expected to make the honor roll, but he has another reason to celebrate. He’s made it into gifted program.

Groves: Come here. Drew, I’m so proud of you.

Kotb: So you think that this single moment, whether, you know, him making it into the gifted program could in effect change his life.

Groves: Yeah, because if you think about it, that’s what moments are. Actually I shouldn’t use the word “moments”... choices, decisions can really change your life.

Kotb, to Drew: What do you think, Drew, is the most important thing you learned from Ms. Groves this whole year?

Drew: I think what she taught us was to always do your best.

Mayah is trying to do her best.

Mayah: I want all my teachers to be proud of me. Ms. Groves especially. Cause I know I work real hard in her class.

She is slowly finding her way back to the girl she used to be... in part thanks to a teacher who refused to give up on her.

Kotb: You want to do it to show her you can do it.

Mayah: Yeah. She knows I can do it.

Only three months ago Mayah had an “F” in monica’s class. Her final grade? A “B.”

Groves: She’s realizing now that it’s about what she’s capable of and I think a young mind, as creative as they are and as energetic as they are, sometimes I and others, we can underestimate the power that they have within to be able to change themselves. Our faith needs to be in them that “you can change.”

There once was a teacher who had faith in Monica. Her role model, Mrs. Kamminga. In our many interviews with Monica, she’d spoken of her so often, we set out to find her...

As we’re talking, Monica has no idea that we found Mrs. Kamminga, now a retired teacher living in Michigan, and invited her for a surprise visit. Monica hasn’t seen or talked to her in 16 years...

Mrs. Kamminga walks in

Monica [doesn’t recognize her]:  hi...how are you doing?

Mrs. Kamminga: Good. Well, do you know who I am?

[Monica shakes her head]

Mrs. Kamminga: ...Can you think back, quite a few years ago...

Groves: Oh my god...Mrs. Kamminga??!! Oh my God. Oh my God.

[Monica starts to cry uncontrollably. They hug]

Groves: Mrs. Kamminga, are you serious. The minute you started talking...the minute you started talking, I knew who it was.

When I think about the impact you had on me and how much I enjoyed being in your classroom, if I can achieve ever that, I will be so...if I can ever do that.

Kamminga: You will. I have no doubt. You have such great inherent qualities. You were such a great little first grader.

Groves: Thank You! You see, even now she has the same effect.

The student is now a teacher. But the education of Ms. Groves has only begun.

Groves: This whole experience from beginning to end has been like a mirror up to my face. And I’ve seen how flawed I am. I’ve seen how much work I need… I was just humbled by it all. Because it’s difficult and I wasn’t able to be what I know I hope to be someday. But I’m working on it.

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