The Not-So-Invisible Essentials of My Practice

Dec 20, 2023
Alex Peck

“Here is my secret. It’s quite simple. One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (p. 63)

In The Little Prince, the above line is a piece of wise advice given from the fox to the little prince as he travels and learns about the world. It is a piece of advice that is simple, yet profound. It is a quote that also profoundly shaped the work of Fred Rogers that was displayed in the Family Communications Offices, as well as his own personal office. The idea of what is essential, is something that Fred explored in many speeches.

Last year, as part of the Inquiry Educators group, I was able to study at the Fred Rogers Institute Archive and take a deep dive into the work on Fred Rogers to explore what is essential about Fred. In the process of learning from Fred and his life’s work, I was able to discover and hone my practice what is essential to me as an educator. The essentials of my practice are:
  1. Model an authentic self 
  2. Encourage creativity 
  3. Allow self-exploration 

“Only by understanding our own uniqueness can we fully appreciate how special our neighbor really is.”
-Fred Rogers (You Are Special: Words of Wisdom from America’s Most Beloved Neighbor, Viking Penguin, 1994, p. 9)

In 1994, Fred spoke to a group of executives. The speech took its title from The Little Prince as he spoke about what is invisible to the eye. Even though he was speaking to corporate executives, the message resonates with me as he says:

“Those of us who are in this world to educate—to care for—children—and we all are—have a special calling: a calling which has very little to do with the collection of expensive possessions, but has a lot to do with the worth inside of heads and hearts. In fact, that's our domain: what's invisible to the eye: the heads and hearts of the next generation: the thoughts and feelings of the future.” (“Invisible to the Eye”: Johnson and Johnson Speech, New Brunswick, New Jersey, December 8, 1994)

Take for example, educator Bill Hall, whom Fred mentioned in that same speech. He loved to play chess and brought his love of chess with him to school to start a chess team. His colleagues and others at the school scoffed at him for doing so. Within a year, Bill was taking a group of students to chess tournaments and competing amongst some of the best chess players in the country. His students were competing and winning because an adult they cared about brought an authentic version of himself to them. 

As a high school (12th Grade) history teacher, coach, and advisor, I spend an incredible amount of time with my students in the classroom, on the practice field, and advising them in different clubs. Many of these young people may not have an adult figure that is unabashedly themselves and opens up their world to them. Students love hearing about our lives and learning that we do not in fact spend all of our waking hours at school. I’ll never forget coming back from a break last year and one of my Seniors being so excited to tell me that she saw me at the Universal Studios Mardi Gras Parade. “Mr. Peck, I told everyone around me at the parade that that was MY teacher on one of the floats! It was so cool.”

It is essential that at such an important time in a young person’s life filled with so many modulations that we provide them with an authentic version of ourselves. They need to see that as the pressures of growing mount, it’s okay as an adult to still have childlike wonder, awe, and to not change who you are to fit into the world. 

In the first few weeks of school, I arrange a series of opening lessons and activities that incorporate some of my favorite things such as Mister Rogers, The Simpsons, Star Wars, and Funkos. 

My interests and evidence of my authentic self are found throughout my classroom. To paraphrase Fred, there’s no classroom in the world like mine and I like my room just the way it is. My hope is that if my students can see an adult who is passionate about what they like and is comfortable with who they are, they can do the same in their life. When addressing Thiel College, Fred said: 

“Every child is born with a unique endowment which gives him [/her/they] an opportunity to make something entirely different from everybody else.” (“Encouraging Creativity,” November 13, 1969, Thiel College, Greenville, PA)

Dr. Orr, one of Fred’s most influential professors while he attended the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, had a dislike for exams. He much preferred letting students discuss and ask questions over formal exams. The students got to be creative and see themselves in their learning. 

Seeing themselves in their learning is something that students don’t get all the time, as educators often make the lessons, standards, learning targets, and everything else. Even in 2023, students are expected to sit and receive. Yet, we wonder why students are rebelling against the system and why some teachers spend so much time on discipline.

In a speech to the Harvard School of Education (“Address to the School of Education,” Harvard University, July 18, 1969), Fred shared what he described as an old story on education:

“This story is as old and as new as a teacher confessing to fellow teachers, I spend 75% of my time with discipline. My question to you is a simple one, why is the story such an old one? Why has it gone on so long?”

Fred freely admits in his address that he isn’t an educational historian and doesn’t have the qualifications to answer those questions, but he does believe that the answer lies in his work as a creative artist. 

I strive in my classroom to encourage and allow students to celebrate and display their creativity in our classroom activities. You will not see a learning target posted in my classroom. As part of encouraging student creativity, “Arts & Crafts” have become a staple in my classroom and a creative outlet that many students wouldn’t normally get during the school day. I have replaced tests and quizzes in my practice with creative opportunities like designing comic strips, Funkos, and one of my personal favorites, their own action figure line. The action figures have also become a student favorite, as a group of students upon handing in their latest creations, animatedly discussed whose was worthy of going on the bulletin board or even deserved to be framed. 

“Youth who are in revolt today are being revolted by our failure to know who they really are.”
-Fred Rogers (“Address to the School of Education,” Harvard University, July 18, 1969, p. 3)

The start of the school year is a time of new beginnings and getting to know a new group of students. For many students, though, the first day or week of school follows a similar pattern: Give me some personal information, here are my rules and regulations… now let’s start content. 

Fred has inspired me to get to know my new students at a deeper and less superficial level. The first few weeks in my room are what I call Zero Week(s), as in there is zero content. In my room, students get to share who they are through personal and digital storytelling. 

We talk about quotes and sayings that inspire and motivate us. Students are then invited to take their quotes and use their creativity to turn their ideas into a vanity license plate. I always share a Fred quote with them. This year the quote that I shared was from the “Address to the School of Education” at Harvard University (cited above) when Fred said, “The system needs revision.” 

In creating Zero Week(s), I try to strike a balance between getting to know my new students, while also not presenting them with an endless barrage of superficial icebreakers. During these classes, I encourage students to explore their hopes, dreams, goals, amongst other items, while being “mindful of the humble and the deep rather than the flashy and the superficial” (The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, 2003, p. 144).

During one activity, I ask the students to reflect on Fred’s words from his Commencement Address to the University of Indianapolis (Indianapolis, Indiana, May 21, 1988) when he said:

“What does make the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, of course, but the main one, I think, is whether we link our wishes to our hopes and our hopes to our active striving. It might take months or years for a wish to come true, but it’s far more likely to happen when you care so much about it that you’ll do all you can to make it happen.” 

After pondering Fred’s words as a group, I ask the students to brainstorm what they believe their life and the world around them will be like 5-10 years into the future. I then give them a blank puzzle template and they have to fill in all of the missing pieces to create a beautiful mosaic of their hopes and dreams for themselves.  

We reflect on not just history, but our own personal history through the lens of Fred’s deep and humble message. As these days and weeks inevitably came to an end, we “assess” our learning through creativity by creating a Funko series based on one of our activities. 

“Think about your natural ways of expressing who you really are!”
-Fred Rogers (“Invisible to the Eye”: Johnson and Johnson Speech, p. 4)

Inspired by how Fred Rogers often gave audiences a minute of quiet reflection during his speeches to think about all of the people who have impacted them on their journey in life, I encourage you to take a minute (“I’ll keep the time”) to reflect on your essentials as an educator. 

The essentials of who we are as people and as educators are important for students to see. Even though we may not see the impact of that in our time together, the impacts are immeasurable. I'm reminded of a story that Fred shared, in the Johnson and Johnson speech (cited above) about observing 4-year-old Helen at his Aunt Bert’s funeral. Helen, despite the somber occurrence couldn’t help but do cartwheels in the church’s gathering area as she was so enthusiastic about her gymnastics training, an enthusiasm that she had clearly caught from her teacher. Watching Helen inspired Fred to write these words which I will leave you with: 

“My hunch is that if we allow ourselves to give who we really are to the children in our lives, give them the invisible essentials of who we are, we will in some way inspire cartwheels in their heart.”

Alex Peck is part of our Educators’ Neighborhood learning community (Cohort 2020-21; Inquiry Educator, 2021-22; Episode Study Group, 2022-23). Connect with him: here, here, or here.

Support Us

Your financial support of the Institute helps us expand our initiatives and resources so that educators and children's helpers can continue to learn and grow from Fred Rogers' legacy. Thank you!