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A teacher's first year: tears, fears, and joy

"Either you attack the day, or it attacks you -- and it beats you down," Monica Groves explains, near tears, in the first episode of the powerful four-part Sundance Channel documentary "The Education of Ms. Groves." A first-year teacher in Atlanta, Groves brings a prison guard's philosophy to surviving her tough middle-school assignment: If she doesn't establish her word as law, the students will overthrow her.

A testament to the hardships of teaching, the documentary follows Groves, a 21-year-old University of Virginia graduate, through her rookie year at the inner-city school. Fresh-faced and optimistic as she scrawls her name on the chalkboard in August, Groves loses her naivete amid stories of poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. As the title suggests, both the students and Ms. Groves learn a lesson -- theirs in social studies, hers in the difficulty of providing and receiving an education in a broken community.

"The Education of Ms. Groves," expanded from an NBC "Dateline" episode to run for four half-hour segments beginning tonight, is a welcome departure from most reality television. That is, it's real. Episodes are not twisted to fit preconceived plots. Drama is not injected by producers. Thoroughly reported and honestly presented, the story speaks for itself. From a year's footage of Groves at home and in the classroom, "Dateline" producer Izhar Harpaz cobbles together scenes of the young teacher's battles with classroom delinquency, lagging grades, paltry attendance -- and her own dwindling idealism.

Besides a contrived conclusion in which Groves receives a visit from her own kindergarten teacher, Harpaz doesn't meddle with the experiment. He lets Groves flounder on her own, and the result is a devastating portrait of a young woman striving -- sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding -- to make her students care about school.

In the later episodes, the documentary delves into the home lives of Groves's pupils. We learn that one is homeless, another's father has gone to jail, and a third has lost his mother. In one tragic scene, cameras follow a student named Stephen to the hotel room where he lives with his siblings and disabled mother. His father has left them. "I'm a little boy," the sixth-grader says. "How can I be the man of the house?"

Struggling for role models, the students push their teacher's boundaries. Groves disappoints herself by responding with exasperation. "I am officially going through a tyrant stage," she tells the camera, after making noisy students spell S-I-L-E-N-T and write the definition. "I know kids talk, but goodness! This is ridiculous. I want to give them a muscle relaxant that makes their mouth numb or something."

That's the frustration talking, the documentary makes clear. Groves cares deeply about her students, but disappointment in them translates into disappointment in herself. Grading papers alone in her apartment one night, Groves marks a string of 40s, 50s, and 60s. Looking ready to cry, she admits, "I think I'm just as tired of failing as they are."

Groves became a teacher, she explains, because traditional paths like law school and business school lacked social impact. As a child, she had been surrounded by white students and teachers in Lansing, Mich., and wanted to give students a positive black role model. So she enrolled in Teach For America, a program that places recent college graduates as teachers in low-income schools, and was assigned to Atlanta.

Throughout the documentary, Groves wonders whether she is built for teaching. She finds glimmering signs of hope: Her students perform well on standardized tests; one student gains admission into an advanced program; another improves her grade from a D to a B.

The end credits reveal that Groves's students performed better on standardized testing during her second year and that the teacher later gained admission to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. According to NBC, Groves graduated last year and is now back teaching at the same Atlanta school.

Still, the series does not exaggerate her success. In one scene, Groves's students are ignoring a homework assignment. She reads them the Maya Angelou poem, "Still I Rise."

"Now all of you need to rise," Groves reminds them, "and turn in your work."

Robbie Brown can be reached at jbrown@globe.com.

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The Education of Ms. Groves

On: The Sundance Channel

Time: tonight through Friday, 8 p.m.

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