3 Important Lessons Mister Rogers Taught Teachers

In "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," many teachers saw a vision of what they wanted their own classroom to look like.

Richard Chance for Fatherly

Fred Rogers was an educational icon. No, he was no Maria Montessori whose educational philosophy has been taken and used in schools around the world bearing her name and making use of the teaching source material she created. Instead, he led by example. He spoke to children with emotional honesty and humility. He listened and showed how to listen. He cultivated a world where kindness and understanding thrived. Children and parents adored him. But Fred Rogers also had another audience — teachers. During the three decades Mister Rogers Neighborhood aired, teachers tuned in to watch a master of their craft demonstrate best practices. Fatherly spoke to three teachers about Mister Rogers’ impact. Here’s what they learned.

1. Emotions Belong in Teaching

Fred Rogers took time and care to help kids understand that it was okay to feel angry, scared, or sad. He made emotional discourse normal and encouraged kids to express their feelings constructively and understand the feelings of others — a tactic that rang true to many educators.

“By acknowledging [a child’s] feelings, by giving them a voice, by helping them begin to take another person’s perspective and see things from a different point of view from their own, which is very developmentally appropriate for young children — that process of learning is so important,” says Ann McKitrick, a veteran educator of 40 years who always watched Mister Rogers Neighborhood now works with Nurtured Noggins in Houston, Texas. “That was what he was all about: the feelings of a young child are every bit as powerful as an adult’s feelings, and those feelings are mentionable and manageable.”

McKitrick spent years not only teaching infants and toddlers but also mentoring pre-K and kindergarten teachers. When speaking of Rogers, she treats him with the reverence of a sage advisor, someone who practiced what he preached. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, McKitrick saw an environment where young children could learn how to initiate play, how to interact well within a group, and how to begin to form appropriate social-emotional bonds that mirrored her own classroom.

Helping kids who were new to the classroom receive the emotional space to feel safe and supported was of utmost importance to her as well — and something else she saw reflected in Rogers. He helped children navigate those difficult waters while always taking their emotional concerns seriously. It was a major driver in her teaching style.

“It’s really important to make the children feel as if they are an important part of the group, that they are heard, that their feelings are validated,” she says. “Of course, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was where people felt safe.”

2. You’re Not Just Teaching, You’re Learning Alongside Children

Cathy Richards was a special education preschool teacher for 22 years in Freehold Township, New Jersey. She looked to Rogers as a master of routine, pointing to his ironic ritual of taking off his shoes as a small exemplar of this. Her attention to classroom routines, which included cubbies and daily circle time, was a direct reflection of this.

“He was like my mentor,” said Richards, adding that Rogers also validated her decision to become a teacher and helped assuage her fears about being in front of the classroom. “I realized that I didn’t have to know it all, that I could provide the experiences and the materials and listen to what the kids want.”

More importantly, Rogers taught her how to really listen to children. When teaching, Richards often received questions from students for which she just didn’t have the answers. Rather than playing the “because I said so” role of the authority figure, Richards, channeling Rogers’ ability to humbly admit shortcomings and be relatable, would simply say she didn’t know. The next day, she’d come back with research for an answer or work with her students to figure out the question together.

“It made teaching so much fun because you were learning some things together,” she said.

Rogers’ influence also extended far beyond the early childhood education setting. Just ask Steve Sonntag, an author and veteran educator of 48 years who taught in California.

“I watched Mister Rogers often, and he definitely solidified and validated my belief system that giving respect, listening, and helping my high school students are very important in my teaching style,” he says. “To this very day, while I am teaching and tutoring part-time, I still practice respect, listen, and help my students. I am patient, but I have high expectations for them.”

3. What Kids Need Never Really Changes

During her time teaching, McKitrick was extremely developmental focused in her teaching. She constantly asked herself: Was her classroom environment meeting kids’ needs? Did it feel safe? Was it an area primed for emotional growth?

“It’s really important to make the children feel as if they are an important part of the group, that they are heard, that their feelings are validated,” she says. “Of course, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was where people felt safe.”

While she no longer works in classrooms, McKitrick still mentors early childhood educators and is excited about the Rogers renaissance in pop culture. She believes that his re-emergence points to the fact that we all just need some more comfort.

“There are so many scary things happening in the world. How do you help children understand what’s going on?” asks McKitrick.

This is a question a lot of people wrestle with. For an answer, she looks to Rogers. “One of the things that Rogers said that’s so true is that the outside world of children’s lives changes, but their insides don’t.” In other words: the most important lessons never really change.

Admire Fred Rogers? We do too. That’s why Fatherly has released Finding Fred, a narrative podcast about the ideas that animated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and what they mean in 2019. Listen to the show on iTunes or online to hear journalist Carvell Wallace grapple with the legacy of a kind, but complicated man.