PBS in the Classroom

Sweater Up: How the Lessons of Fred Rogers are Inspiring my Teaching this Year

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Sometime in the middle of July, back-to-school sale messages begin to crowd the airwaves. Seventeen years into my teaching career, those commercials still bring butterflies to my stomach. Like most teachers, I’ve spent countless hours this summer reworking my curriculum, tweaking lesson plans, and preparing materials. My lessons are ready. My materials are set to print. And my classroom, well, it will get there. Now it’s time to turn my focus from organization to motivation. How am I going to stay positive when it feels like my profession is constantly under attack? How am I going to help my kids learn to be good humans, when our political discourse is filled with hateful invective? How am I going to help my kids navigate the challenges they face this year? My answer—I’m going to channel Fred Rogers.

With the recent release of the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Mr. Rogers has returned to the spotlight. The theater where I saw the film was filled with a diverse crowd ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s, and we sniffled through it together. I left the theater reminded of the radical power of simple, genuine kindness and determined to bring some Rogers-style neighborliness back to my classroom. I am not ashamed to say I watched a few old episodes this summer in preparation. As a child, I had no idea just how much I was learning about becoming a good human when I visited the Neighborhood, but as an adult, I realize that this TV show is some of the best professional development I’ve experienced. This is the pep talk I need.

First, love. That’s it. This isn’t ground-breaking. Every successful teacher understands that love is essential in the classroom. We know that for most students, if you can’t make them believe that you care about them as a human being, you will never make them care about your curriculum. I have been known to surreptitiously roll my eyes when this is brought up in staff meetings; it’s a given. We also know that the students that are the least lovable are often the ones that need it the most. As Mr. Rogers said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.” I’m not proud to admit that there have been students for whom I should have struggled harder, and I need this reminder.

Second, be vulnerable in front of your students. Let them see you fail. Let them see you use failure as a tool for growth, because failure isn’t an option—it’s an inevitability. As a music teacher, I must be especially aware of this because learning in my class is a public act by default. My students are learning a skill (playing a stringed instrument) that is new and complex, and they are doing it in front of their peers at an age where self-consciousness is on the rise (middle school) and peer relationships are gaining importance. Rogers modeled this so many times in his program. I watched him learn to decorate a cake, write in calligraphy, and make a paper hat. In each instance, he treated his own failures with the same judgement-free acceptance he gave to the children. “Do you like to draw with crayons? I’m not very good at it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the fun of doing it that’s important.” The fun of doing it has to come first, and the fun won’t be there if we worry about being good at it. It’s not enough to model that in my subject area; I need to model that with every new thing I learn. Even when we switch gradebook programs. Even when the internet goes down in the middle of a lesson.

Finally, take care of ourselves, and our students. The final lesson from that I’m focusing on this year happens behind the scenes, with Fred and not with “Mr. Rogers,” although he does mention it in at least one episode. Most mornings, he would begin his day by swimming a certain distance. He tells the children that even though he doesn’t always feel like it, he does it because he made a promise to himself. As teachers, we need to take care of ourselves just like we take care of our students. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, sometimes you have to put the oxygen mask over your own mouth before you can assist others.

Why we will sweater up. For these reasons and many more, my theme for this year is "sweater up." I’m hoping that this will help me when I’m feeling frustrated with a challenging student or to show my students the power of failure. The school is my neighborhood, and no matter how much ugliness there is in the world around it, I'm going to make sure my neighborhood is filled with kindness. We can all be on the lookout for an opportunity for our version of Officer Clemmons in the kiddie pool.

Teachers, it’s time to sweater up for the new school year.

Amanda Laws

Amanda Laws Teacher

Amanda Laws teaches violin, viola, cello, and bass to middle school students in Blue Springs, Missouri.

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