• Kayte Thomas

Lessons from Mr. Rogers

There is a wonderful meme going around social media this last week, intended to encourage parents, teachers, and students. It’s a picture of Mr. Rogers that says “Mr. Rogers was one of the greatest teachers, and he did it all virtually.” I don’t know who created it, but I think it’s pretty brilliant. When I saw that, I paused to think about it for a moment. Maybe it’s because I grew up with Mr. Rogers and have fond memories of his show that I felt all warm and fuzzy for a moment, but seeing that made me feel a bit of comfort and have a sense that everything might be alright after all. I hadn’t thought to consider the “virtual” aspect of his show until now. But that really is an accurate statement!

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I have significant disdain for technology. I greatly dislike the negative effects it can have on physical health, mental health, and interpersonal communication. Screen time is connected to dysregulated sleep patterns, headaches, hand and neck pain, attention issues, decreases in face to face interpersonal communication effectiveness, increases in anxiety and depression, safety issues for children, and more. Whew! That’s a lot of concerns to have. However, even I have to admit that technology serves useful purposes as well – ranging from amazing scientific advancements to maintaining global interconnectedness and providing opportunities for instant information and amusement…and at the moment it is keeping millions of children and their families safely at home with access to educational content during a pandemic. That’s pretty great given the current circumstances. There’s a possibility that I will re-evaluate my disdain after this experience slightly. Perhaps.

Anyway, back to Mr. Rogers. He really did provide education and comfort to children in a virtual forum. I have no idea why I haven’t made this connection before. And while this meme connected that for me, it doesn’t explain why Mr. Rogers was so amazing and effective or why this should be comforting to people right now. So I figured this might be a good opportunity to review some of that. Now, I think we all realize that Mr. Rogers was not under the constraints that today’s educators are with testing guidelines and overcrowded classrooms and lack of supplies and the myriad other barriers teachers face daily. He wasn’t even a “teacher” in the common sense of the word as in a classroom educator, but he certainly taught a generation of children extremely important lessons regarding social-emotional skills, communication, kindness, challenging discrimination, managing grief, and more. (Can you tell how much I love Mr. Rogers yet?) He was pretty magical! If you want to learn more about his work go here.

Mr. Rogers had a way of relating to children of a wide range of ages and abilities and backgrounds because he was accepting of who they were, allowed them time to process the message and draw their own conclusions, and encouraged exploration. Do you remember the time he sat with his audience for a full minute of silence waiting for a one-minute timer to go off just to show children what “one minute” felt like? Absolutely brilliant! The magic of Mr. Rogers was that he was experiential. We know from research that actively experiencing something makes more of a lasting impression than rote learning and memorization, testing, etc. And Mr. Rogers was there to let you experience just about everything, patiently.

Before we talk about ways to apply this, let’s be clear on something first – today’s classroom teachers are amazing and under incredibly difficult constraints so this blog post is not intended to critique anything about what they are or are not doing in any way. It is merely intended to offer perspective on ways to rethink the current learning situation so many of us find ourselves in with hopes of reducing stress and frustration. Same for parents and students – everyone is under a lot of stress right now and we are all doing our best. It’s important to keep that in perspective.

That said, what can we learn from Mr. Rogers as we move forwards with virtual learning? From my perspective, these 7 items seem to be important and applicable takeaways for students, parents, and teachers alike, whether attending school on campus or virtually:

  • Focus on connection

  • Allow adequate processing time

  • Encourage exploration and curiosity

  • Create application to everyday life

  • Be accepting of others

  • Have patience

  • Celebrate small successes

What does this look like in practice? Well, we know that connection – basically the synergy between people that is built on rapport and trust – is one of the most important aspects of a successful dynamic. Being able to relate to each other on a basic human level really matters. So with the hecticness of standards and grading and deadlines….remind yourselves to connect. While it may feel necessary to rush through activities, it’s important to pause and process. Allow time for exploration of the lesson at hand, and think of ways it may apply to your own life or things you see around you. People have a variety of different needs, strengths, comfort levels, personalities, etc., and these may come out in different ways in Zoom than in person (and with the collective pandemic strain right now, it might show up differently than usual in person too). Be mindful of this. Be accepting of someone who needs the camera off to reduce anxiety or who has a fidget toy for stimulation or who gets excited to shout out answers or who never wants to answer, for example. Have patience with yourself and others while we all adjust to this new experience. Breathe! And every time something goes well – celebrate. Truly celebrate the wonderful ways that people are persevering during this difficult time, because it is nothing short of miraculous.

Whether it’s you or your child or a coworker or family member who is feeling overwhelmed, consider this list of reminders and spend a few moments asking if one of these items needs to be introduced into the situation to make things go more smoothly. I can't tell you how to teach or parent or learn, but I can tell you that taking a few moments to reframe your perspective is often beneficial no matter what the problem is. Hopefully this will be a helpful activity throughout the year for some!

I often wonder what Mr. Rogers would say if he were still here with his wonderful show today, given the state of the world. I’m sure we would all be coping with this better if he were. Perhaps when feeling overwhelmed, we would be wise to slow down, be gentle with ourselves and others, ask questions, and connect. Just like Mr. Rogers showed us how to.

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