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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

Lessons from Mister Rogers

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Mister Rogers has an undeniably successful playbook.

(This piece was picked up on ASCD Smartbrief Education, as does collaboratively on a monthly basis.)

(Special thanks to the Fred Rogers Center, for taking an interest in this article and sharing it with their readers, who also recognize Rogers' brilliance. Here is their retweet of Yay Math's article.)

On May 1st 1969, a young and dapper Fred Rogers offered testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications. The far less known Rogers made his case before the initially brusque chairman, Senator John Pastore (D-RI), for why public funding for educational programming is so critical for early childhood development.

The degree to which he cared for children was palpable in his testimony. Clearly, this was his singular mission, and such sincere dedication to this higher cause managed to turn the senator and secure the full $20 million he requested on behalf of public programming. If you are interested in seeing how to make an intelligent and impassioned case for a cause, the seven-minute clip is below. I'm telling you, as a teacher, he was way ahead of his time.

In full candor, I never fell in love with Mr. Rogers until recently, when searching for programming for my two-and-a-half year old daughter. When I recently saw him after a decades-long hiatus, all my principles as an educator and a new parent rushed to the forefront of my consciousness. I’m now hooked, having watched numerous episodes spanning over his thirty years on the air. True dedication to becoming a masterful educator unequivocally demands an exploration into Mr. Rogers’ playbook. This homage to him will also include my commentary as to why I believe he was so effective, and subsequently, transcendent.

Know what you give.

And by the way, it’s not lesson plans and homework.

At the 3:30 mark in the video, Rogers experiences a noticeable epiphany about himself. He says, “This is what I give – I give an expression of care every day, to each child.” An expression of care to each child? Try declaring something like that during your next faculty meeting, and then gauge the reaction you get. Either your colleagues will nod and appreciate the reminder as to why we do this important work, or some doofuses will laugh uncomfortably at the notion of living and working in their highest form. Maybe they’re fearful of operating from that state of being, or they’ve just forgotten how to get there.

What do you give? Surely your merited credentials are a part of this equation. But the lessons learned from our credentials are not our most valuable offering. Fred Rogers dedicated his life towards making children feel they matter, and that their existence alone warrants our care for them. His mission was to make that notion a reality through his television “neighborhood,” where every day was a chance to offer his expressions of care. Since such a visionary approach has made an indelible mark on generations of families, then it only makes sense to apply such concepts into our practice as teachers.

Here’s a simple way to breathe life into his “what I give” approach. Complete the following sentence in three different ways: “I want my students to…” Start with the most important goal, followed by your second, and third. I strongly urge you to find a non-academic mission as your primary focus. Ask current and former students alike to discuss their inspirational teachers, and sure enough, you’ll hear anecdotes far more human than scholastic. In the spirit of this exercise, I’ll share mine with you:

1 – I want my students to know that everything I do with regards to them is in an effort to constantly improve their lives.

2 – I want my students to believe in their own capability; that through patience and dedication, they can meet and exceed their goals.

3 – I want my students to have a relationship with math based in a strong visual and conceptual understanding, rather than empty memorization strategies.

The concise articulation of what you give sets the tone for your daily choices, as it did for Mr. Rogers throughout his life, on and off screen.

Develop your culture through repeated traditions.

I know all of Mr. R’s songs by heart now. It didn’t take long, because he has only about four major ones, kept intact over his thirty years. Those songs, especially the iconic “Won’t you be my neighbor,” establishes the comfort we feel when returning to the “neighborhood” that he set up. The same goes with recounting fond family memories: we often gravitate to the traditions, repeated over years.

We must apply this idea of establishing culture into our pedagogy as well. Some teachers, for example, smoothly incorporate music into their days, either while students walk in, or during class exercises. The students eventually look forward to it, thus their overall experience improves. Some teachers establish key phrases or jokes that are personalized to only that particular group. Sometimes, teachers go a step further and deftly designate implicit student mascots, whom other students rally behind and/or admire. Feelings of family emerge, and all of a sudden, sterile learning settings give way to a warm and welcoming sense of community.

In one class, a student of mine had the highest pitch sneeze you could imagine. With love and friendship, I tried singing a rendition of, “bless you” equally as high. Of course, on several occasions within an individual setting, I checked in with her about it, to make sure I wasn’t embarrassing her in any way. She was completely game, in fact she loved how we made it a class celebration. My frequent failure to hit the high notes was a source of class comedy for everyone present.

This is what I mean by culture. Like Mr. Rogers does on his program, we must generate within our students the same positive feelings every time they enter our space. Those feelings include acceptance, safety, dedication to learning, and hopefully some fun and spontaneity. It’s our job to establish that culture, which is ushered in through a few key repeated traditions.

Just walk the walk. Period.

It's a beautiful sentiment to express care to our students. But we don’t really need to say to them, “I care about you.” When we meet with them during office hours without looking at our phones or email, we effectively communicate that care. We don’t need to say, “I want you to do well” when we construct curricula that make sense and are transparent, devoid of power-trippy curveballs. We are not permitted to say, “You need to work harder” if we take one month to grade a stack of tests.

The power behind what we do stems from our actions, not from printed syllabi or the occasional behavioral lecture. For the record, I have printed syllabi and I have conducted impromptu class interventions when necessary. Yet I was fully aware that calling them out on their shenanigans was only possible by cashing in my own “conduct capital” I had developed over the school year(s) with them.

Students, especially young students, are hyperaware of hypocrisy. It’s very easy for them to sniff out, and it’s one of the many ways they successfully see right through us. If you watch Rogers’ intentionality during his testimony, or the manner in which he smiles at the beginning and end of every show, you instantly know the depth to which he cares. His presence alone unmistakably conveys that. That’s precisely what moves and inspires us. We all crave when people’s actions and words align. (Politicians: please take notes, as this will be on the test.)

If a student is celebrating something genuine, tune into him/her and celebrate along with. If another student is struggling and upset, let your face convey authentic sympathy. One way I instantly neutralize rude behavior in class is to say to the student(s), “I would never do this to you” in a tone perfectly fitting of the moment at hand. Now the hypocrisy is turned on them, and they’ve become aware that my conduct within our learning space has been setting the tone for everyone’s conduct the whole time.

The most powerful form of leverage we have is also the most difficult to attain, which is the incremental development of our reputation. Every smile, every day executed in an organized fashion, and every moment that we can be present within, these all make deposits in our personal “conduct account.” Through its simple existence, students will be implicitly motivated to make deposits in their own conduct accounts as well.

For decades, no one understood this more than Rogers. Through his facial expressions, body language, rhetoric and song, he was able to continuously convey how much children mattered to him. I hope I can live up to his philosophies. I hope that any student under my care feels the same way I do whenever I hear or see him. Thank you, Fred Rogers, for your enduring legacy.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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