Hope from the Helpers of the Educators' Neighborhood

May 4, 2020
Melissa Butler

Our educators of the neighborhood were in full swing in their classrooms in March, ready with next episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to play, and creative ideas to try out with their students. Then, schools closed. Now, they remain closed.

In challenging times, Fred Rogers is often quoted saying something he learned from his mother: “Look for the helpers. There are always people who are helping.” Right now, we are all looking for, and deeply appreciating, our many helpers, including nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, postal carriers, sanitation workers, truck drivers, food bank volunteers, neighborhood service providers, among others, including… teachers.

I feel lucky to be in (virtual) contact with our group of educators and get to learn some of what they are doing to support their students and families at this time. Across many districts and contexts, often with limited resources, here are some ways teachers are helping students and their families:

  • Creating daily video messages: reading books, singing songs, teaching how to make things, noticing things of nature, talking about a challenging topic

  • Facilitating online chats and gatherings for children and for parents

  • Finding accessible ways to share clips of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

  • Writing hand-written letters to each student and mailing them with self-addressed stamped envelopes so children can send mail back

  • Researching relevant, relatable, and stress-free learning resources for families

  • Encouraging and supporting creative play with everyday home materials

  • Making calls to service organizations to connect families with resources they need

  • Gathering needed supplies themselves to drop off at family homes

  • Calling parents one-on-one to advise, support, and talk about whatever is needed

  • Allowing vulnerability and sharing of themselves (their pets, their families, their feelings, their circumstances) in new ways

  • Learning and practicing (and often agonizing) with technology

  • Relying on each other for kindness and support

  • Teachers are doing these things, many of which are above and beyond what they are being asked or expected to do, while also taking care of their own children, other family members, and neighbors, too.

Through the process of interviewing teachers for our Educators’ Neighborhood interview series, it is clear to me that teachers are not waiting for this to be “over” or for things to go back to “normal.” Teachers, in this group and beyond, are keenly aware of the grave inequities that exist in our country and show up clearly in our schools (both when schools are open and when they are closed). Teachers are keenly aware of the range of emotions children and families are experiencing now, and of the myriad emotional, health, and daily human living needs that schools will need to continue to meet for children and families when things re-open.

Teachers are planning and teaching for children’s academic learning, but they are also doing much more than this. They are working to love and support the wholeness of children, including the families and communities that surround them. And they are working to create new possibilities for learning (and being) in the future in ways that work for all children in all contexts.

Here are some messages of hope from teachers—inspired from Fred Rogers—that they wish to share with families right now with children at home due to Covid-19 closures.

The stress of what’s going on right now can be overwhelming, so how can we refocus and find joy? I think Fred would encourage us to use this unexpected time to listen to our children and learn from them. What positive experiences can we create together during this time?
-Renata Capozzoli, Kindergarten teacher, Pittsburgh Faison

There’s a lot of little messages that Fred has. We’re in this together. Getting in touch with your feelings. Your feelings are okay. You’re fine the way you are. Be the best that you can be at this moment. You are still important. And it’s okay to be afraid.
-Cindy Patterson, Grade 1 teacher, Pittsburgh Dilworth

Caregivers are being looked to for comfort even harder right now. Our children will bounce back and we will all be resilient, but we have to have patience with one another, give each other grace—knowing that we are all in a state of uncertainty—and therefore remind our children that we love them, they are safe, and we will get through this together. Smile! We know that is contagious, too.
-Erica Nemzek, Early Learning Coordinator, Waynesboro Area School District

That everything you’re feeling is okay. Grown-ups, kids, we are all going through a range of emotions, sometimes on a daily basis. There’s no wrong way to feel. Processing it, people may need help with that. But what you’re feeling, it’s all okay.
-Katy Carroll, Kindergarten teacher, Pittsburgh Faison

I just read something this morning [from Fred Rogers Center Instagram] that said: “I believe it’s a fact of life that what we have is less important than what we make out of what we have.” It’s not about how much of what you want or have, but it’s about how you use what you already have. We’re here. We’re home. We’re not acquiring new things or going new places, but we can make and do amazing things with what we already have.
-LeeAnne Kreuger, Kindergarten teacher, Pittsburgh Beechwood

I think that during this global pandemic, it is helpful for parents to know that they do not need magic words or a background in psychology to help their children navigate this difficult time. Children simply need the adults who love them best to be present with them, to listen to them, and to model how to name and work through the array of emotions that both parent and child may be feeling. It may just be that this unprecedented time yields powerful growth in our children because through it all they have been held secure in the simple love of their families.
 -Amy Brereton, Vice President for Academics, Endeavor Schools

One of the most vital things Mister Rogers hoped to teach viewers was that having feelings is never something to be ashamed of. Emotions are a natural part of the human experience. It’s also important to let those feelings help you grow into a better person. Working from home with a toddler has opened up many feelings in me and I agree with Mister Rogers, I feel I am growing into a better mom, educator, and person because of this Covid-19 lifestyle change and I’m appreciative of all the helpers in this world! 
-Katy Thompson, PreK teacher, Pittsburgh West Liberty

I just read an awesome quote on a Fred Rogers page I follow on Facebook: “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” I think this is a beautiful quote to share because it’s hard. Just the anxiety, waking up every day, and saying, “Oh my gosh, is this still going on?”
-Kathy Brown, Kindergarten teacher, Pittsburgh Beechwood

Fred Rogers once told us, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” With all the news surrounding Covid-19, look for the good, look for the helpers because you have to find the positive amidst all the negative. Children need to know there are people out there doing their best to make the situation better.
-Molly Ouchis, Kindergarten teacher, St. Ignatius Loyola Regional School

I think it matters for families to know that you’re doing the best you can. It’s not perfect. You don’t need to be perfect. Just do your best. When they’re in school, it’s not perfect either. Don’t worry about what your neighbors are doing or anyone else, just do the best you can. Just do the best you can.
-Maureen Frew, Digital Media Specialist, Avonworth Primary Center

If you’d like to hear more from teachers who are part of Educators’ Neighborhood, we’ll be having a virtual community gathering (through zoom) on May 13th from 5:00-6:30pm. We’ll watch some clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you’ll hear from teachers about how MRN episodes are relevant to their students and families, and you’ll be able to ask teachers questions, too. We hope you’ll join us. Please register here. Also, the application for Educators’ Neighborhood Learning Community 2020-21 is still open through May 15th. Apply here.

Melissa A. Butler is the project lead for Educators’ Neighborhood, a project of the Fred Rogers Center. She writes for children and adults, and supports people, schools, and organizations to design for joyful learning based in slowness, not-knowing, trust, and authentic notice-to-wonder practices. www.noticingmatters.com  |  @butler__melissa  |  noticingmatters

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