MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Let's move to a happier subject. School is back in session. And for a lot of people, that's going to mean something new: new clothes, maybe a new school, and for some, a new career.
Monica Groves is an eighth grade teacher at Young Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia. She started teaching there three years ago with Teach for America. It's a program that places college grads in some of the country's neediest schools. She let cameras record her first year, and her story is told in a four-part documentary "The Education of Ms. Groves." It premiers tonight on the Sundance Channel.
Monica, Ms. Groves, joins us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Welcome.
Ms. MONICA GROVES (Teacher): Thank you.
MARTIN: What made you want to be a teacher?
Ms. GROVES: I was an English major and a Spanish major, so I was certainly trying to figure out what that broad general education was going to lead up to. I started recognizing the influence that my teachers and professors had in my life, and I was also very much interested in working with kids and working with peers. Teach for America recruited recent college graduates to teach in low-income schools.
MARTIN: When you first hit that classroom the first day or two days or three days, how different was it from the image you had of what it would be like to be a teacher?
Ms. GROVES: Oh, it hit me when I - in the parking lot walking into the school when I saw, you know, that I was walking into my room and I had all these students who were looking to me to craft their first day of school. It hits you right away.
MARTIN: All those eyes looking at you.
Ms. GROVES: Yes.
MARTIN: You're up there by yourself.
Ms. GROVES: And you are running the program. Yes.
MARTIN: You are Ms. Groves.
Ms. GROVES: That's right.
Ms. GROVES: And that title was not familiar to me at that time so...
MARTIN: Well, the documentary definitely doesn't sugarcoat your experience. I think that a lot of teachers - you know, parents for that matter - will relate to your struggle to balance discipline with affection, instruction and there, you know, there are couple of times when you seem like you're about to lose your cool. Why don't we...
Ms. GROVES: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: ...why don't we play a clip?
(Soundbite of movie, "The Education of Ms. Groves")
Ms. GROVES: Now just cut all the silliness out. Cut it out altogether. Get in a single file line. It is week 10. I'm tired of saying the same things over again. Now I don't want to have to make one correction when we go in the building, not one. And you better clamp the smiles and get serious, because I'm tired of it. I don't want to look at that anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, what was going on there, Ms. Groves?
Ms. GROVES: A lot was going on there. One, I was definitely frustrated, if you can't tell already. If I recall correctly, that was about the 100th time that we had come out of the cafeteria. And coming out of the cafeteria, I lost all of my students. And therefore, it took about 15 minutes to get into the school building to start class again.
MARTIN: What do you mean you lost them? They seem pretty big. I don't know where - how could you lose them? Sixth graders.
Ms. GROVES: Well, what happens is from our cafeteria, you go outside to get back into the building. And so, when we would exit the cafeteria, it would just become a playground. And so, it would take time to collect all the students to get them back in line to get into the building.
And that was me losing my cool, frustration all over my face. I guess that lesson on what I had to learn, which was learning how to discipline without the anger and frustration.
MARTIN: There's been a lot written about, you know, education in this country, a lot - it's obviously a major concern of the country, certainly the parents and sort of families, individual. A lot talked about - a lot is written about urban education in particular. And I just wonder, when you see a scene like that, what does that bring up for you? Because in a way, and obviously, you know, that's a stereotype that a lot of people have, you know? These schools are uncontrollable, ungovernable and so forth. On the other hand, you know, these are kids, you know, just like, you know, sort of other kids. And I just wonder when you look at a scene like that and you look at sort of your part in it and what needs to happen differently, what do you say? What would you want other people to draw from that?
Ms. GROVES: I would certainly want people to first draw - because this is something that I'm sensitive to - that what you see manifesting in kids ultimately is somehow rooted in what the adult present can do. So the fact that I was having a hard time escorting my students from the cafeteria to the classroom, by all means, there is some accountability with the students. But I, as the adult, had influence to make that go either positive or negative from one day to the next. And so my part in that was realizing my influence and not saying it's the kids. It's those kids.
But the reason why I was able to correct scenes like that in my teaching was because I realized I had a part in it. My stature is petite. I look young, and I think that, in general, it is going to be kind of second nature for a student or a child to kind of say, well, you don't look how my normal authority figures look and to test that. That's part of being a child, and it's the adult's role to correct that in a positive way.
MARTIN: If you just joined us, I'm talking with Monica Groves. She's an eight-grade teacher at Young Middle School in Atlanta. Her first year there as a teacher is the subject of a documentary airing tonight on the Sundance Channel.
At the beginning of the school year, there was one - there's this lovely scene where you say I don't know my students, but I love them already. And then when they come in, you could see they're just these little sparkly faces, and there are couple of students that are sort of featured in the series, one - Drew really stands out. He wrote a poem in your class. So let's hear a little bit of that.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Education of Ms. Groves")
DREW (Student): I am a smart, young black boy. I wonder if there are more like me. I hear the hundred cries of my ancestors. I see the joy when Africans were declared free. I wanted to be there during the hard years of slavery. I am a smart, young black boy. I understand the sacrifices made for me. I say today is tomorrow's start. I dream of a nation without discrimination. I try to dream that wonderful dream. I hope that dream will become reality. I am a smart, young black boy.
MARTIN: And, of course, that's a clip from the film. You encouraged him to apply for the gifted program, and he got in.
Ms. GROVES: He did. He did.
MARTIN: What's he doing now?
Ms. GROVES: He's in high school. He's at Mays High School, which is down the street from Young, and he's doing wonderfully.
MARTIN: Okay. What would you have us draw from Drew's story?
Ms. GROVES: Well, I want them to see someone who is both extraordinary and ordinary. So often, I know I've gotten reactions from watching the documentary, and others have said, oh, he was just so special. He was just so different. And I want to stop people right then and say, you know, he definitely had something special, but I had 83 kids in my classroom and they all had something to give and something to offer. And so he's both special and ordinary, and I hope that when people look at students like Drew, they realize that, you know, maybe the caricature of the every day urban student is just that, a caricature, and that there are students like Drew in our school and in our classrooms.
MARTIN: You finished your stint with Teach For America, and then you went to Harvard and got your Masters...
Ms. GROVES: Yes.
MARTIN: ...in Education and then you went back to your school in Atlanta. We hear so much...
Ms. GROVES: Yes.
MARTIN: ...about the - what's the word, attrition rate for young teachers?
Ms. GROVES: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: You know, people starting out with such great hopes and passion for the profession and then, for whatever reason, abandoning it after a fairly short time. So the point, I think, a lot of people are worried about as a national issue. I wanted to ask you, what made you go back?
Ms. GROVES: I knew that I had a lot more to give in the classroom, and I had a lot more to learn in the classroom. So often, when you look at my educational background in (unintelligible) University of Virginia and definitely had aims of going to graduate school, a common thing that you hear is why do you want to be just a teacher? So sometimes there is a common assumption that being a teacher means that you've limited yourself.
MARTIN: So what would you say to people? What do you say to people who say, oh, why aren't you, you know - you're never going to make enough money and...
Ms. GROVES: Mm-hmm. Right.
MARTIN: ...you know, you could be a lawyer or a doctor.
Ms. GROVES: Right. And there certainly are - that's right and - but that's the thing. My education - this is what I teach my students - my education gives me choices. I have choices, and I'm choosing to be a teacher right now.
MARTIN: Monica Groves is an eight-grade teacher at Young Middle School in Atlanta. She joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Her first year as a teacher is the subject of a documentary airing tonight on the Sundance Channel. Good luck, Ms. Groves.
Ms. GROVES: Thank you very much.