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Inside Dateline: Chronicling Monica's journey

Producer Izhar Harpaz: It was tough for me to film Monica during those weeks when she was visibly losing hope.

August 24, 2006 |

Meeting Monica (Izhar Harpaz, Dateline producer)

I was ecstatic when my executive producer at Dateline accepted my story proposal to follow a first-year teacher for an entire school year. As a producer I would now have to plan, direct, write the script and collaborate in the editing of this education special. My first and most important assignment: to find the teacher who would allow us to follow her as she navigated her way through the challenges of her first year of teaching. I had contacted Teach for
America who graciously provided me with a list of fifteen potential candidates.

Monica was the fourth person I called. She impressed me immediately: Monica was open, honest and enthusuastic. And she was serious about making a difference in her students' lives, aware that mistakes were inevitable, and confident that she could  withstand a camera scrutinizing her every move. Two minutes into our telephone conversation I decided that my search for a main character had ended. Monica was it. Where she went to teach, that's where I would follow. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made - both professionally and personally.  I would end up learning a lot from this amazing 21-year-old; lessons about committment, perseverance, courage. Lessons about character.

Monday morning, August 9. First day of the 2004-2005 school year. Jean Childs Young Middle School, Atlanta, Georgia. My co-producer Shayla Harris, two camera crews, and I are waiting for Monica's car to pull into the parking lot. There she is. Tentative first steps, as the camera is focusing into a close-up of her face, Monica is clearly nervous, not sure anymore why she agreed to be the subject of our documentary. As if walking into a sixth grade classroom in a tough urban middle school wasn't enough. But turning back is not an option. Monica takes a deep breath, tentative steps turn into a purposeful, steady walk. Her extraordinary journey — and mine — has begun.

August 25, 2006 |

The difficulty of observing from some distance (Izhar Harpaz, Dateline producer)

To predict what will happen during a 9-month long shoot, and plan your filming accordingly, is clearly impossible. Our budget did not allow us to have cameras in the class room every single day.

Monica's experiences, and those of her students, would have to be our guide. We had to be there for her "highs," when she managed to motivate her students like no other teacher had. We had to be there for Monica's "lows," when the challenges seemed to overwhelm her.

No one helped us chart the course better than Monica herself: she was brutally honest, especially with herself. Monica was hard on her students, even harder on herself. When they succeeded she gave them the credit they deserved. When they failed, she blamed herself. And there was a lot of self- blaming that first semester. It was clear Monica and her students were struggling. September, October, November and December were tough months for Monica.

Invariably, we missed some of the pivotal moments of that first semester;  like the time when Monica was overcome with emotion, and started to cry in front of her class. She told us later of the feeling of incomprehension among her students as they watched her tears silently. Monica hoped that this small loss of control would show her students how much she cared about them, but she wasn't sure what the repercussions would be in her continuing fight for her students' respect. Monica has an optimism the kind of which I've rarely encountered, but in the face of the realities that confronted her day in, day out, her optimism began to falter.

It was tough for me to film Monica during those weeks when she was visibly losing hope. I, our entire production team in fact, had come to care deeply about Monica. The father in me (I have a daughter close to Monica's age) wanted to comfort her, tell her she was on the right track, tell her that if she continued to lead by example her students would follow. The friend in me wanted to counsel Monica that her incessant self-criticism was slowly taking away her ability to judge her performance, that her emotions and her unwarranted fear of failure actually kept her from teaching effectively. But as a producer, as a documentary film maker, it was my job to chronicle Monica's experience. Nothing more, nothing less. I had to remain completely uninvolved, neutral, in fact make sure neither I nor anyone else on my production team did anything to influence any of Monica's actions. It was Monica's job to realize her mistakes, to learn from them. And when she did, I hoped to be there, camera in hand.

Check back on this space for more on 'The Education of Ms. Groves,' and producer and character blogs. The show airs on NBC Saturday, 8 p.m. Please also check your local listings.

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