When we trust in teachers, teachers remember to trust in themselves

May 1, 2019
Melissa Butler

In December 2018, I wrote a piece entitled “Beechwood Kindergarteners Learn With Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Now five months later, this same group of children continues to watch a new episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood each week, selected by their teachers. Teachers select episodes based on something that has happened in school, something children are discussing or reading about, or because they feel a particular episode song or topic is of significant value to their students. They watched the Eric Carle episode (#1721) when they were reading Eric Carle books and trying out his artistic techniques. When children became interested in the gorilla image in the book Head to Toe and wanted to learn more about gorillas, teachers selected to play the Koko episode (#1727). After reading I Love Saturdays y Domingos by Alma Flor Ada and talking about grandparents, they played an episode (#1531) from the series on Grandparents.

There is observable data of the significant impact on children’s learning from watching weekly episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and extending this learning with their teachers and classmates after the episodes. I am not talking about “data” of how many words children read in a minute or how many points they score using some out-of-context assessment. I am talking about actual, real-time, rich, descriptive data. Children who talk with each other during and after each Picture-Picture video because they have so many questions and connections they can’t wait to say them. Children who know the difference between make-believe and not, and talk about what they see/hear in one place that connects with the other. Children who sing songs with confidence, answer the questions Mister Rogers asks with eager attention, can allow the silence and slowness of episode moments with ease. Children who have come to trust in the learning and joy from the episodes and in the learning and joy continued in their classroom afterwards.

The benefits for children’s learning are evident to anyone who visits the large classroom at the end of the basement hallway each Friday morning at 9:30. The energy feels like a hug. But there is another kind of learning happening at Beechwood, another kind of learning happening because of the consistency of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood each week. 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.

Our current educational system holds such a mistrust of teachers and an organizational structure that manages what teachers say and do (often by the minute). Thus, a weekly episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is a deep breath of fresh air. As Mister Rogers talks with children in each episode, Fred Rogers is communicating with teachers that they matter, too. He reminds teachers that they have all they need inside themselves to be and do their best with the children in their care.

With this group of Kindergarten teachers during this school year, I have observed more trust in their 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.

Teachers had an opportunity to visit the Fred Rogers Center Archive in November just had another visit in May. They select what they want to read: Fred’s notes about the development of episodes, research and conversations behind each detail of each episode, speeches and articles that place the episodes in a larger context of Fred’s overall work on behalf of children. Learning more about Fred Rogers as a person and learning more about the intentionality of each episode is part of what supports teachers to trust more in themselves, too.

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.

The influence of Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is perhaps more relevant now than ever if we care about helping our teacher helpers remember to trust themselves and what they know is best for children.

I continue to be inspired by Pittsburgh Beechwood preK-5, its students, teachers, and leadership. I believe in spaces where teachers (and thus students) are trusted to learn from each other and support one another’s growing. The Fred Rogers Center believes in this kind of trust in learning, too. Because of this, we are launching Educators’ Neighborhood: Learning and Growing Together, a place for educators to learn from and with each other inspired by the life and work of Fred Rogers. We will grow an expanded community of educators to study episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, read from the Fred Rogers Center Archive, and generate new ideas together connected with our daily practice with young children.

Learn more about Melissa A. Butler.

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