From Foundations of Trust

Aug 1, 2022
Melissa Butler

As Educators’ Neighborhood moves into its fifth year of educators learning together inspired by the life and work of Fred Rogers, I’ve been reflecting on the core of this work, it’s essential through-line, the heart of it.

Just as it’s possible to see numerous through-lines in the work of Fred Rogers— love, belonging, curiosity, slowing down, simple and deep, human connection, joy— it’s also possible to see numerous through-lines in the community of Educators’ Neighborhood. That said, there is one element of Educators’ Neighborhood that I see as most essential to how educators feel and learn in community, and one that too easily remains invisible when it’s not named or described: TRUST.

Trust is one of those words that everyone understands (in some way) and yet there is always more to explore about what it means. Trust is also a word that gets easily tucked into mission statements, professional development overviews, and ceremonial pronouncements. Yet trust as a word is much different than trust in practice.

Trust in practice requires vulnerability to not know, openness to ongoing curiosity, listening to receive all of what is being said (and not said), generosity to hold space for others without controlling what that space will be, and steadfast clarity that people have all they need inside themselves.

Dr. Dana Winters, Director of the Fred Rogers Institute, speaks often about the importance of engagement with Fred Rogers’ ideas in ways that don’t replicate or prescribe. Her words are rooted in a deep and unwavering trust for those who seek to engage with Fred’s ideas and are informed by artifacts in the Fred Rogers Archive that show us endless possibilities for what trust can look like in practice.

From the beginning of Educators’ Neighborhood, before we’d given it a name, back when Dana and I would have tea and talk about educators who were watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with their students, a through-line of our conversations was trust in teachers and what they know.

Here are excerpts from an early essay, When we trust in teachers, teachers remember to trust in themselves, which explored such foundations (May 2019):

But there is another kind of learning happening… This learning is that of the teachers. And it’s not just any kind of learning, but the best kind—the kind of learning that evolves from remembering who you are and what you already know.

I have observed more trust in teachers’ instincts, more collaboration with each other, more sharing of their personal stories with students, more confidence in talking about what is developmentally appropriate or not, more improvisation with what they choose to do with students after each episode, and an overall approach that trusts in the larger picture of what they do as teachers.

It’s not that teachers are hearing or reading anything totally new. Fred’s approach is based in solid research on child development that teachers do know. But in most settings, rarely are teachers encouraged to bring what they know to their practice. Rarely are teachers permitted to slow down, reflect, and consider child development as essential in creating learning experiences for their students. Rarely are teachers encouraged to be their full selves in their teaching or to improvise what happens next based in what they observe right in the present. Thus, consistent opportunities to observe Fred Rogers in action during episodes and read about his approach of practice in the archive are highly supportive for teachers. Fred Rogers is the ultimate teaching coach, reminding teachers what matters most in children’s learning and reminding teachers that they have all they need to provide this for their students.

Educators’ Neighborhood has grown upon this foundation of trust in educators. Yet the foundation goes deeper than this. It sits upon Fred Rogers’ trust in children and in his unwavering trust in each person’s own process for learning and growing. Engagement with archival materials (including episodes of MRN) affords a unique and potent way for educators to be surrounded by assumptions and practices of trust and find their own pathways to embody trust in themselves.

This happens in community where educators:
  • Show up as whole people to talk and learn together about what matters to them (be all of you, personal and professional).
  • Explore, reflect, connect, and apply practices that are deeply connected to children’s whole development (robust, integrated, relational, complex, joyful, full of love).
  • Are acknowledged for the range of what they know and provided opportunities to share knowledge with others (small and whole groups, public panels, convening presentations, writing, networks).
  • Have time and space to engage and reflect with slowness, support, and compassion.

We’ve collected hundreds of statements from educators about the impact of this community on their personal and professional practices, and each reflection is rich compost for the soil that continues to allow Educators’ Neighborhood to grow and thrive. Here’s one beautiful morsel from an educator:

“I have learned that professional development can come through slow, intentional unfolding rather than working toward prescribed outcomes. I have learned to notice at a slower pace, to be more gentle with myself as an educator and as a human. As this year comes to a close, I feel like I am just now beginning to see where the work of Fred fits seamlessly with my daily practice. It’s as if I needed to be still and slow in it for an entire year before it truly began to take form.”

Bountiful goodness grows from trust—beauty, joy, connection, learning, love, belonging, being… and ever-expanding trust. May the garden of Educators’ Neighborhood continue to grow, share itself, and regenerate the ways we learn from, and love, educators.

Melissa A. Butler | Teaching and Learning Fellow with the Fred Rogers Institute | Find her here and here.

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