Lessons from Mister Rogers

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 for why public funding for educational programming is so critical.

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, here is the seven-minute clip.

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 30 years on the air. True dedication to becoming a masterful educator unequivocally demands an exploration into Mr. Rogers’ playbook.

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 will laugh uncomfortably at the notion of living and working in their highest form.

What do you give? Fred Rogers dedicated his life towards making children feel they matter, and that their existence alone warrants our care for them. 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 – it’ll be far more memorable than actual content. (My “giving goals” are on the full-length version of this piece.)

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.

We must apply this idea of establishing culture into our pedagogy as well. Some teachers, for example, smoothly incorporate music into their day. Other teachers establish key phrases or jokes that are personalized to only that particular group. Another powerful culture setter is the deft designation of 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.

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 such culture, which is ushered in through a few key repeated traditions.

Just walk the walk. Period.

We don’t really need to say to students, “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. Whenever I need to call students out on their shenanigans, I’m aware that my words hit the mark because of the incremental “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. Such depth is 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’re now aware that my conduct within our learning space has been setting the tone for everyone’s conduct the whole time.

For decades, Rogers set a tone that was (and is) revolutionary for television. Through his facial expressions, body language, rhetoric and song, he was able to continuously convey how much children mattered. 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.

Robert Ahdoot is a math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom and in studio, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10-plus years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

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