I didn’t love Mister Rogers growing up. I was more of a Sesame Street-loving gal, with the bright, feathery puppets and the emphasis on cognitive growth. It wasn’t until my little sister, a tiny blond hellion whose body never stopped moving, settled down into stillness only to watch Mister Rogers that I started paying closer attention to the quiet man in the red cardigan.
Once I started paying attention, there was a lot of inspiration to be had. Here’s what Mr. Rogers taught me about teaching:
Mr. Rogers taught me that everything is about relationships. I can’t picture Mr. Rogers without hearing his kind voice saying, “I like you exactly as you are.” This is the best introduction to affective learning there is! He is also the man who said, “A love of learning has a lot to do with learning that we’re loved.” Mr. Rogers taught me to be the most effective teacher, I had to first build relationships with my students. He also said, “It’s easy to feel empathy for someone once you’ve heard their story.” I think of that quote every time I start to lose patience with a student and it helps me make empathetic choices. He also taught me the power of silence. He used silence to listen to his guests and allowed himself to open up to their needs as he opened himself to them.
Let children play
Mr. Rogers taught me that children learn through play. Watching him showed me that play is the context for learning. Play provides cognitive, social, emotional, language and vocabulary skills, as well as physical development. All teachers should make time for play. When I taught early learners, that meant dramatic play, art, and sensory stations. In the upper grades, I incorporate games into instruction, advocate for recess at my school, and participate in Global School Play Day and encourage others to do the same. There is power in play.
Practice radical love
Mr. Rogers taught me how to practice radical love as a teacher. Many people have found inspiration in Mr. Rogers’ well-known quote attributed to his mother about dealing with a catastrophe by looking for the helpers. Mr. Rogers demonstrated tolerance, compassion, and equity, even challenging societal norms. In May 1969, Francoise Clemmons, or Officer Clemmons, as he was known on the show, shared a foot bath in a kiddy pool with Mr. Rogers. This quiet moment was a ground-breaking lesson to all watching about equality and standing up for human rights which made me want to emulate his advocacy on behalf of my students.
Always use child development best practices
Mr. Rogers was a lifelong devotee of Margaret McFarland. McFarland believed children were not empty vessels to be filled but emerging people with their own needs, which was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Rogers taught me to use an empathetic approach to child development that leads to approaching everything from curriculum, academic standards, and daily lesson planning focused on utilizing best practices.
The need for high standards applied to people working with children
As shown by the above example of Mr. Rogers’s love of using best practices, he also believed that there should be high standards applied to people working with children. He believed that anyone providing children’s television should undergo special training. I believe that teachers should be given training in best practices and have the opportunity to undertake the rigorous National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification.
The arts belong with children
Mr. Rogers taught me that children deserve to be exposed to the fine arts. I did not appreciate the fine transition music by jazz composer and pianist Johnny Costa, but I remember listening to singer Francoise Clemmons. Mr. Rogers exposed children to the magic of puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and he showed children how puppetry works. He composed and sang hundreds of songs. He knew children deserved exposure to the arts at all ages.
How to teach
Watching Mr. Rogers teach his viewers taught me the most basic element of good instruction: Break it up into the simplest steps. He taught me how to take any concept, from teaching reading, to how magnets work, to the effects of the Revolutionary War and break them into the simplest steps.
Mr. Rogers continues to inspire children and adults with his simple, but insightful lessons. Lessons that I cherish, and have passed on to the next generation. His legacy is what teachers’ dreams are made of.
I’ll leave you with my last life lesson from Mr. Rogers…make every day a snappy new day!