“I didn’t know I needed to hear that today,” A voice over the computer says. “What’s that?” I ask.
“That I might do things differently, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” The voice is coming from one of the Pre-Primary teachers in the center where I worked as an administrator at the time. It is September of 2020 and we have just finished our weekly Zoom share of an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a practice I implemented in my center when I first joined Educators’ Neighborhood, an initiative of the Fred Rogers Institute.
That teacher wasn’t prepared for Fred’s message to touch her heart that day. I’m still surprised at how often it happens to me in my work with Educators’ Neighborhood. When I applied to be a part of the program, I hoped to improve my teaching practice – as an Early Childhood Educator, as a music teacher, and as an administrator. And I certainly did find ways to improve my practice, but what I didn’t anticipate was how much it would affect other areas of my life. After two years in Educators' Neighborhood, in year one as a general participant and year two as an Inquiry Educator researching in the Fred Rogers Archive, I began to notice how the experience was changing my life in unexpected ways.
I found myself looking forward to our “Fridays with Fred.” Showing weekly episodes to multiple classrooms often meant that I was watching an episode three or four times. It gave me the opportunity to really hear some of Fred’s messages. Here is what stood out to me:
1. The best teaching is simple. As a kid who grew up “in the Neighborhood,” I felt it was important that the first episode that I shared with my students was the one that I remembered best from my own childhood. In 1981, Mister Rogers took us on a visit to the Crayola crayon factory. And in 2020, the children were still enthralled with it. What is it about that factory visit that draws us in? It’s not flashy. It’s just an accurate but simple glimpse into how crayons are made. And it doesn’t need to be anything more than that.
2. Authenticity is important. I'm not supposed to be like somebody else. I can show up as I am. In episode 1481, when we return from the crayon factory, Fred sings “You Are Special” and then tells us, “And that’s true. You are the only person who is exactly like you, so in a way you’ve already won in this world. Because you’re the only one who can be you. The things you do are always a little bit different from anybody else, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
What a gift to remember that no one else is going to do things exactly the way that I do, and that’s the way it is supposed to be. That when I teach a music class, it isn’t meant to be like someone else’s music class, and that each music class that I teach isn’t meant to be exactly the same. Every class is made up of children who are special in their very own way, and when I bring my special to meet their special, that is when it is possible to make deep and authentic connections.
3. It's easier to be kind than you think it is. Perhaps not only a lesson that applies to the classroom, this is something that I want to shout from the rooftops; to challenge the idea that it takes more effort to be nice, than to be mean. I have seen the difference in children’s interactions when kindness is presented as the easier option. Children who observe caring adults being kind to others, then choose to be helpful rather than hurtful. And as an adult, in watching all of those episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and pouring over artifacts in the Archive, I am reminded of how easy it is to treat others with kindness, respect, and take a genuine interest in who they are as people. The people in the Neighborhood like Lady Aberlin, Handyman Negri, and Daniel Tiger make it look easy because it is.
I have even seen it in the communications that come from others who worked with Fred, too. In my work in the Fred Rogers Archive last year, I consistently saw the depth of kindness and humanness that radiates in everything from typed memos to handwritten scripts. Fred, and those who worked with him, chose to approach others as fully human and were ready to accept others just as they are. This is a lesson for teachers, for students, for all of us.
As I went deeper into my studies at the Fred Rogers Archive, I realized that this learning extends beyond my teaching practice. It has become much more about how I want to experience the world. It’s like that old Quaker saying that Fred was fond of using, “attitudes are caught, not taught.” Well that’s just what happened. I spent so much time watching and reading about Fred that I wanted to put more of what I saw in the Neighborhood into my own life.
1. I want to give the gift of listening. At certain times of year, we often hear folks talk about how giving is more important than receiving. That may be true with regard to actual gifts. But there are other gifts that we cannot see or touch, but can feel just the same. One of those gifts is the way you receive others. For myself, it means asking the question, “How can I listen with an open heart so that those I encounter feel seen and accepted?” When we listen deeply, we are telling the other person that they matter to us, and we want to be fully present with them in that moment.
2. Life is hard enough - I want to create a sense of ease. I'm not interested in making problems where there aren't any. I want to create the same feeling of safety that Fred and my friends in the Neighborhood gave to me. Often in his speeches, Fred Rogers told us that “anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that’s mentionable can be more manageable” (You are Special, 1994, p.115). In other words: Difficult conversations, easy life. It’s a practice that my girlfriend shared with me. We try not to hold onto things that may be hard to talk about, but instead to talk them through in a loving way and find a solution or let them go. There are still misunderstandings, of course, but by remembering that we are humans, we find a way to hear each other that may be easy to lose when we forget that the other person is human, too. And when I need it, I find Fred's words are always there to remind me of our shared humanity.
3. I will need to be reminded. I am still learning. I hope I never stop learning. And I give myself and others permission to get it wrong, to forget, to try again. In one of my other favorite Fred songs, he sings, “You almost always try, you almost always do your best” (“You’re Growing”). That gift of grace. The almost. The trying. We don’t have to do it all. We don’t have to be it all. We are enough as we are. And deserving of love and respect simply because we are human.
“Knowing children has helped me to understand so many things in this life. That’s why I always like to say you’ve made this day a special day for me, because children can make lots of days special for grown-ups. Some day when you’re a grown-up, you’ll know that that’s true and you’ll know what a great feeling it is.” (Fred Rogers, 1981, from Episode #1490)
I am thankful for how often I have known that great feeling over the past two years. I hoped that Educators’ Neighborhood would help me improve my teaching practice. I never expected that watching a children’s show and researching its creator would have such a profound impact on my whole life. But Fred’s messages aren’t just for children. And really, whether you work with children or you don’t, you were a child once and Fred’s messages of simplicity, authenticity, and kindness are meant for you, too.
Erin E. Dolan is part of our Educators’ Neighborhood learning community (Cohort 2020-21, Inquiry Educator, 2021-22). Connect with her here.
Small is Enough
The factory visits of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—when Mr. McFeely visits Mister Rogers with video tapes of "how people make things"—are rich with opportunities for wonder, connection, and delight.
In Mister Rogers Talks with Parents (1983), Fred Rogers, in collaboration with Barry Head, outlines six "basic necessities" for children's learning readiness, one of which is "the capacity to look and listen carefully" (p170).
Positive learning outcomes are related to healthy social-emotional skills, and both are strengthened through quality interactions with adults. As a Youth Services Librarian, I am interested in this connection, and how I can support children's learning through programming like storytime.