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The Education of Ms. Groves: Take 2

Rehema Ellis writes

NBC News was there during her first year of teaching. Now, several years later, we caught up with Monica Groves to see what she's learned. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

While I was interviewing Monica Groves in Atlanta recently, I couldn't help but wish that she were still in the classroom and that my son could have her as a teacher -- if only she moved to New York. This young woman is exactly the kind of person everyone wants in school: She is smart, engaging, curious, full of wonderful ideas, and what's most important, she believes in children and their ability to learn.  

Ms. Groves, as her students respectfully referred to her, is also someone who's not afraid to reveal that from time to time she needs help. The country got to know her strengths and weaknesses through the award-winning Dateline story, "The Education of Ms. Groves." She was gracious enough to allow an NBC Dateline crew to follow her through her first year of teaching in 2004.

That took confidence and courage.

She was right out of college, 22 years old, fresh-faced, eager and unprepared for the enormous challenges awaiting her in the classroom.

In a 2006 personal essay, Groves wrote: “Over the course of my first year, I learned that education isn’t just about books, and education doesn’t just flow from teacher to student,” adding that “you can’t teach the child if you don’t have a positive relationship with them.”

Groves spent two years teaching at Jean Childs Young middle school in Atlanta before she went to Harvard University to pursue a Master’s degree in teaching and curriculum.

The hard-earned lessons she picked up along the way helped prepare her for her new role as a curriculum specialist for KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools, a network of free public charter schools.

Programs such as KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge is Power Program, have promoted a longer school day and and principals’ power to hire and fire staff at will. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, Texas, co-founders Dave Levin and Michael Feinberg filled the walls with slogans such as “Work Hard,”“Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts.” But KIPP schools have come under fire from some observers for allegedly screening for the most driven students, with regular public schools left to educate the rest.  

In her new role, Groves is still eager and excited about students. She smiles easily and laughs when talking about kids.

Hear more from Monica Groves, the subject of the Dateline documentary "The Education of Ms. Groves." Currently she's the curriculum specialist for KIPP-Metro Atlanta.

But rather than teaching in a classroom, she now guides more than 80 teachers in five schools. As her boss, Katie Rigby says, Groves is "creating the (blueprint) so that teachers know what to teach, how best to teach, and when to teach it throughout the year.”

Groves says teachers actively shape young minds in the classroom. "But there’s a lot that needs to happen inside the classroom and outside for us to really maximize what kids deserve to have," she said.

When she’s not working in small groups with teachers and principals, Groves is at her cubicle making phone calls, gathering information, sorting through materials, and prepping for her next meeting. Her work space is very quiet. It's a vast difference from what life was like for her when she was in front of students.

"Although it doesn't always have the hugs and smiles of kids every day, it's nice to feel like you're still part of a team, and you know it's a critical part,” Groves says. Helping teachers become better educators, she says, has been rewarding.

"Collaboration makes a difference," Groves said, "when you’re not just an island, when you’re not just in the classroom figuring it out by yourself and you only have your lens as the only lens to kind of check your reality and see what’s going on."

And she’s offering exactly what so many teachers tell me they need: professional development and curriculum support.

With all her she brings to the table, Groves would be a terrific leader of an entire school district someday. Everyone in the community would be better for it, I think, because she's someone who genuinely cares about education for the kids' sake.  Knowing that, I wouldn't be surprised if Groves, as the future school leader, found a way to make long, meaningful visits to schools to offer encouragement and instruction.

I say that because when I listened to her talk about students and what she learned while she was teaching, there's no doubt her heart is still there with the kids -- in the classroom.