Teaching Styles in the Movies #2: Mary Poppins and the Montessori Method

'Where are those kids?'

Like most people, I don't often watch BBC3. It appears to be a Madame Tussaud's waxwork imitation of ITV4+1, without the charming adverts and endoscopic examinations of Katie Price's entrails. Never mind: at least it served up a decent New Year's film without adverts yesterday. Can there be a teacher more emblematic, more beloved than Mary Poppins, the eponymous heroine of what is, let's face it, the universe's most charming  movie? Apart from Mr Sands in Alan Clarke's 1979 masterpiece Scum, possibly. So how does her teaching measure up with the baseline of ideal practise, the OfSTED inspection? Here are a few highlights of her observed lesson.

1. She practises the Montessori Method. Obviously as a home tutor (or 'Nanny' as they call her; perhaps 'Governess' sounded too formal) she can't be scrutinised in a whole class environment, but some things are still glaringly obvious. For a start, she believes that children are the best guides to their own education; we learn this when she responds to the children's' (Jane and Michael, two haunted looking wraiths who appear to be forty year-old dwarfs) job specification (which is, somewhat unconventionally torn in pieces and sent up the chimney. Or is that chim-chim-eney? Perhaps the TES jobs pages were full). They apply for, and get what they want, rather than the more formal, didactic requirements of their father, the wonderfully repressed Mr Banks. He works in a Bank, you see. Dickens couldn't have named him more clearly. I'm surprised Mary Poppins wasn't called Mary Teacher or something.

This clearly shows that she believes that children should be at the centre of their own education, or as Maria Montessori puts it, 'the child ...[has]... an inner natural guidance for his or her own perfect self-directed development'. In other words, children know best how they learn, and need only be left alone to do so, which is so fabulously, demonstrably wrong, I'm amazed that Mary Poppins isn't Tazered and left in a dumpster by her pupils. However, once accepting that, amongst other requirements, a teacher should be what the children want her to be (including the rather worrying specification that she should be 'rosy cheeked- never cross', which the last time I checked, wasn't on the entrance requirements for the Institute of Education. Yet.), she then performs a classic teacher switch, and proceeds to hustle them relentlessly. Which indicates that perhaps her whole Progressive Education shtick is just a ruse to get them on side. Go Mary!

2. She's a master of interview techniques. For a start, she manages to convince Mr Banks that she's indispensable, even to the point of getting him to believe he's already hired her when in fact, all he's done is wipe his forehead with a hanky for five minutes, look up the chimney, and question his own existence. Brilliant. Best of all, when asked for references, she just says, 'I never provide references.' Even more brilliant! Doesn't bode well for her Criminal Records Bureau check, though. What's she hiding? Probably the fact that she evened the odds in her favour a bit with the mysterious aid of an East wind that dramatically blows her rival candidates away, although it does so in a charming and painless manner. Well, they did look old and cross. Not a rosy cheek between them, unless they were hiding something in their pantaloons.

3. She's industrious. She has LITERALLY walked in the door and bamboozled old Banks, when she marches up to the children's breakout area ('bedroom' they used to call it) and starts with the first lesson; tidying up. Is this a starter? Probably not- it sounds like a main lesson activity, although she has the decency to preface it with an aim: once you find the fun in any job, the work's a game! It would be better if she displayed it on a whiteboard throughout, but we can't have everything. And of course by the end of the first lesson the children are so enamoured of tidying up, that little boy/ man Michael wants to keep doing it. Perhaps he wouldn't be so keen if tidying up involved more than clicking your bloody fingers, but there we go: clear evidence of learning. Outstanding progress, certainly.

3. She uses a variety of teaching methods and styles; for a start, she practises a mixed (balanced?) curriculum that involves trips to the Park, although as with Jackie Chan before her, there is little evidence of a Risk Assessment, so it's impossible to say if she's properly considered the perils of, say, jumping into a magical chalk drawing with a strange man, while taking the children around what appears to be an unmanned (and unfenced) petting zoo. The situation becomes even more serious when we see that she takes them from a white knuckle ride carousel (Risk Factor 4: Very Low- some danger of minor bumps and nausea) straight to...er, a race track and a fox hunt (Risk Factor...about a hundred). There isn't a seat belt or safety measure in the world that would get that one past a middle leader's desk. Unless you wrote a very convincing proposal.

'I'm orf. Tuesday, innit?'
The final nail in the coffin is the fact that, immediately upon entering the pavement-jolly, she seems to abandon the kids in favour of flirting with dear old Bert. Poor, poor Bert. Not only does he seem to be the victim of some kind of oesophageal spasm whenever he talks, but his ardour is endlessly thwarted by the perpetually pious and virginal Ms Poppins, who crushes his advances with cold-comfort compliments. 'You'd never press your advantage, Bert,' she says, as Bert realises he's entered the Hellish world of the Friend-Zone. Bert's wondering when Truly Scrumptious is going to come along and let him do some chim-chim'nying of his own.

So overall, the trip, while supporting the Children's enjoyment (after all, Every Child Matters. Thank God they wrote a directive to tell us that: previously we'd imagined they were only good for baiting wolf-traps), she didn't pay sufficient attention to their safety, which after all is priority number one in the classroom and beyond. Along with all the other number one priorities, like 'Rapport, 'Fun', 'Engagement', and apparently 'Passion.' 'Learning' is bound to be in there somewhere. I hope.

4. She writes her own contract. 'I'll stay until the wind changes,' she tells them. Which she does. Unconventional; a fixed period of set terms is more usual, but a contract can take almost any form, I suppose.

5. She teaches them the real value of tuppence. By appealing to their tender emotions, she persuades them that money, rather than being invested ('frugally', remember) should be given to homeless people who ambiguously, want to 'feed the birds', in an apparently endless regression of infinite kindness. Perhaps the pigeons then help out the fleas, or something. This of course flies in the face of Banks' wishes, who unsurprisingly (and in a somewhat unsavoury manner) takes them to his bank (her idea again) in order to curry favour with his bosses and simultaneously get them to join the miserable, endless line of cynical, penny-pinching misers who live for material accumulation, i.e. like him. What a b*stard. Serves him right that they predictably show him up in royal style, and cause a run on the Bank of England (accompanied by much red-faced coppers blowing whistles and shouting 'ordah!'). Where's Mary Poppins in the middle of this maelstrom that she created? Day off, guv. Tuesday, innit?

I particuarly enjoyed the fact that, when they get lost, they end up in the bowels of the East End of London, surely the last word in depravity and innocence lost. There's a dog, you see. A big barking dog. Actually, it looks quite charming. Luckily, Old Bert, a man they've met once, and an itinerant jack-of-all-trades, catches them and takes them home. Upon which their mother, who by this point is clearly going for the Mother of the Year award, asks Bert (or 'You, Sir' as she calls him) to look after them for a bit, because she has 'a meeting'. She certainly does- in a pub, with a man called Jack Daniels. Poor kids. Where's their live-in tutor? Ah yes. Tuesday.

6. Ultimately, she supports the parents. When she realises that her canny meddling has led to the re-establishment of family bonds (and worryingly, a temporary loss of the main breadwinner's livelihood- it would have been interesting to see how Mrs Banks, the apparently absentee mother- i.e. she's a drinker- and her husband would pay for that lovely Regency House. Or nannies, for that matter. I sense the green shoots of another children's classic: Oliver) she leaves. The wind changes, you see. Of course the wind's volition had been anticipated by old Admiral Boom and his undisclosed live-in Cabin Boy. They were simpler times, and presumably they just both missed curling up in Hammocks together.

'Er...I saved yer some chalk.'
The danger with this kind of inspirational, personality driven teacher, is that they are often very hard acts to follow. Not only that, but they usually flagrantly flout whole school policies in such a way as to erode the pupil's respect for other teachers that do employ such well-worn methods. Systems are there for a reason, I'm told, and for that reason, Mary Poppins will have to be asked to leave. Send for the line of crowish shrews that the East Wind blew away in the first act; there's a job vacancy.

Except that she's already gone: left before she was pushed, I suspect, or at least before the GTC could get their teeth into her. Meanwhile, poor Bert's strapped himself into the One Man Band suit again.

Mary Poppins- Heroes of Education #2. We salute you.

*No Cockneys were harmed in the writing of this blog. Or indeed, used in the making of the film.


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