Learning & Teaching
by Jess Leach, Community Coordination Associate at Agenda for Children
Photo: Fred Rogers Company
Anyone else who’s ever worked in a summer program has almost certainly experienced the same day as this one: It started extremely humid and turned into torrential downpour. My throat burned from reaching my voice over hundreds of children’s, my limbs lagged, and my head throbbed… there was no word for how tired my body felt. That night, I decided the only thing I wanted to do - the only thing I could do - was sit in a dark, cool theater and watch a movie.
As if by divine intervention, the next showtime at Somerville Theatre was for Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary film chronicling the life of Fred Rogers, a beloved children’s program host who began charming young ones on television from my parents’ generation in the late ‘60s through my own childhood up until the year 2000.
What was intended to be an escape from work then turned into an hour and 45 minutes of unexpected professional development. All the characters I cherished as a preschooler - King Friday, Daniel Striped Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Aberlin - became facilitators in the ultimate Mr. Rogers training on how to be an effective leader and communicator with young people, even when you feel like you’ve never been so tired. I left the movie feeling so reinvigorated and inspired, I was actually excited to go back to work the next day to apply some of the lessons to my teaching. Here are three of my biggest takeaways and how I see them fitting into OST work:
Consistency is key
Every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started the exact same way. The unassuming, mild-mannered Mr. Rogers would enter his TV home singing the sweetest tune: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” He’d take off his jacket and loafers and replace them with a cozy cardigan and tennis shoes. In the film, this routine is explained as his way of showing viewers he is comfortable with them, and he wants them to feel comfortable too.
As an educator of young children, I can now more deeply appreciate this moment as an exercise of consistency - a hallmark of the show. In my experience, all types of children crave and benefit from structure. They want to know what to expect from adults and trust that those adults can deliver on those expectations. Mr. Rogers was creating trust and relationship simply by showing up and doing the same thing every episode.
Seeing this play out in the movie made me think of how I am consistent and predictable to my students, and how I can be better. What is my equivalent of taking off my loafers? How can I make the safety of a routine more fun and stimulating (like Rogers does with his song)?
Let your guard down
The greatest treasure of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t the tear-jerking montages nor the endearing old clips from the show - it’s the revelation that Mr. Rogers didn’t always have the love for himself that he poured out to everyone else each day on screen. He had plenty of fears and doubts, proving that he is in fact a human being like the rest of us. More interestingly, though, he wasn’t too ashamed to hide these feelings from his audience. In fact, he broadcasted them in a very Mr. Rogers way: through the voices of his puppets. Daniel Striped Tiger, who lived in the clock in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, was most often his mouthpiece for these feelings.
In one clip shown in the film, Daniel is singing a song that he feels like a fake and doesn’t really like himself, and the song turns into a duet with Lady Aberlin who assures him that he’s loved for being exactly who he is. Interviews reveal that this song truly came from Mr. Rogers' heart, and he wanted to send the message that these feelings are okay.
Being honest about tough feelings doesn’t make you weak or mean you’re admitting failure at your job. When shared with intention, these truthful moments are teaching moments as well.
Can we effectively teach social/emotional skills if we don’t model them ourselves? I always ask my students to use their words when they’re feeling frustrated or sad, but how often do I do the same? Next time I’m feeling negatively, I want to not only be honest about it, but be an example at dealing with it.
Time is our gift
One of the most prominent themes of the documentary is how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was, and still is, so different from other children’s programming. Most TV made for kids is fast, bright, colorful, slapstick and silly. Mr. Rogers’ show was anything but. The film explains how he used time meaningfully and wasn’t afraid to be quiet and still, to let moments linger, and he never shied away from being serious. In one clip, he literally sets an egg timer for one minute and tells his audience: “This is how long a minute is!” letting it just tick and tock with no added visual or commentary.
We live so much of our lives in a hurry to get from one thing to the next, and kids are no exception. Out-of-school time programming is an opportunity to slow down and let them enjoy childhood. We aren’t as limited by class schedules or curriculum, which means we can allow social/emotional learning to not only take place but actually sink in. It’s okay if snack is five minutes behind because we’re learning to be a community and clean up together. It’s okay if fuse beads is on hold because two first graders are working out a conflict. It’s okay if nothing goes according to our plans, because no moment is wasted when we devote our energy to helping young people feel supported and accepted.
Jess Leach began her journey in Cambridge OST at Agassiz Baldwin Community, where she teaches in the 1st-5th grade program. She joined the Agenda for Children OST team in early 2018 as the Community Coordination Associate, where she helps oversee professional development and improve communications with youth workers.