Teachers Can Learn a Few Tricks from Fictional Nanny
Guest Teacher Blogger – Winner of the 2012 Sopris Learning Blog Contest!
By Michelle George
On the long holiday weekend, I thought I’d take a break from grading papers and planning units to watch an old family favorite, Mary Poppins. My choice was “practically perfect in every way.” You’ve heard the old adage, “You learn everything you need to know in kindergarten.” Now I have a new one for teachers: Mary Poppins gets it when it comes to educating kids.
First off, you’ve got to love any woman who can pull off that stark, buttoned-down look and still appear pleasantly attractive. Beyond that, she is an excellent illustration of what it takes to be a teacher who can reach kids and change lives. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.
Mary Poppins has mastered the balance between a warm, personal and a productive, professional relationship. She clearly loves Jane and Michael, but she’s not their friend. After all, someone has to tell Michael, “Close your mouth; we are not a cod fish.” That takes love and a bit of authority.
As teachers, we need to find that balance as well. Numerous research studies have shown that the student/teacher relationship is instrumental in student success. Successful teachers sincerely care about their students. The challenge is that a teacher must care more about her students than about what those students think of her. Being a friend and a teacher doesn’t usually work. Nearly every person you ask can tell you about their most influential teacher, and that person is almost always someone that showed genuine caring while earning respect … just like Mary Poppins.
Right after Ms. Poppins floats in and befuddles Dad, she heads up to meet the children. She calmly opens up her carpet bag and begins making the nursery her own. As teachers, we can take our cue from her in two ways.
First, make your classroom and your teaching your own. Share some of your personality with your students. If you’re bored teaching the material, imagine how those distracted kids in front of you are feeling. With the advent of the Common Core, we are freer than ever to choose content that we are passionate about. It’s the process that is key. For instance, I teach essay writing using topics that interest both me and my students. I’m feeling more at home already.
The carpet bag reminded me of a second way we can settle into our classrooms. As a first-year teacher, I had a mentor who often referred to her favorite teaching strategies as her “bag of tricks.” She frequently claimed that, whenever her students were struggling with a challenging concept or just struggling to stay focused, she would pull out one of her “tricks” and keep the class on course.
After 19 years, I now have a few tricks that I rely on as well. I use music in my classroom to manage work time and transition time. I use games to practice concepts and content that students need to commit to memory. My tricks are actually research-based teaching strategies. I didn’t make them up; I learned them from high-quality professional development classes. I wouldn’t enter any new class without my own “bag of tricks.” And just like Mary Poppins, my carpet bag is seemingly bottomless. Every time I attend a training or take a class, I add to my bag of tricks. Student engagement is a moving target; if you want to keep ahead of your students, you must keep adding to the bag.
So now Ms. Poppins is really getting comfortable in her new surroundings. She looks around, and the nursery is a mess. Mary has a couple of choices. She can jump in and do the work herself, but that doesn’t teach the kids anything, and that is her purpose after all. She can also sit herself down and tell the kids to get to it. (We all know how well that usually works.) Instead, she steps back and takes the time to ensure that this newest project is successful. She says, “Well begun is half done.” Brilliant!
How many times have you headed into a class when you had a pretty good notion of what you wanted the kids to accomplish … you were just a little fuzzy on the details of the process? I’m sure none of you has ever launched in without being prepared, but I have a time or two. (Of course, it was early in my career.) Every time that happened, I learned the hard way what Mary Poppins knew all along. If you lay the ground work ahead of time, the process will go much more smoothly, and the final product will be much more satisfying.
Here is a recent example of beginning well. My students write an essay each year for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Patriot’s Pen contest. This year the topic was, “What would you say to our Founding Fathers?”
Before we began the inquiry unit, I asked the kids to share with each other who they thought might be considered a “Founding Father.” When I started hearing names like Lewis and Clark, and Albert Einstein, I knew we had some work to do.
After some time planning and gathering resources, we spent several days building a knowledge base. We listened to podcasts about some of our revered leaders, and read short expository pieces on those early years of our nation. We read first-person accounts of the dilemma those men faced when choosing the dangers of independence from England. I even found a great music video that some teacher with genuine talent and too much free time made that sums it up in a very entertaining way. We also read, Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution, by Jean Fritz and Tomie dePaola, to better understand the compromise required to forge a united nation.
Preparation for the essay contest took time—more than I thought I had available. But if we hadn’t done the scaffolding, building knowledge and understanding, my students might have been thanking the father of the theory of relativity for our country’s beginnings. After the research, my students easily wrote their essays with specific details and intriguing analysis. I’m thankful to Mary Poppins that this particular job was “well begun.”
Well, I’m already over my length limit, and Jane and Michael haven’t even met Burt yet. Mary Poppins has a lot more to teach us as teachers, so I’ll stop here for now and finish up the movie in my next blog. As Mary says, “Enough is as good as a feast.”
Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school—as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.