• Robert Ahdoot

Lessons from Mister Rogers

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

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.