With Fred Rogers’ death ten years ago this month at the age of 74, America’s families lost the best friend they ever had. Every parent and every child who bathed in the grace of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, if even for only an hour, benefited from his gentle and loving heart, and his soothing and unhurried disposition. Never preachy or condescending, Mister Rogers was a friendly neighbor from whom we could learn, with whom we could play, and in whom we could trust. When he told us that he likes us “just the way you are”, we somehow knew that he meant it; we cared about Mister Rogers because we felt keenly that he cared for us.
For over thirty years, Fred Rogers was, quite simply, the most redemptive presence not just on television, but on the entire American popular scene. In the lives of millions of today’s young children, a comforting, hope-filled presence such as that which Fred Rogers offered would do wonders to help assuage the destabilizing effects of contemporary social experience. For countless young Americans violence has become the first language because it is such a dominating theme of so much of popular music, motion pictures, television programming, video games, and day-to-day discourse. With increasing frequency, we have been made witness to the incommunicable experience of fatal assaults within our schools—on students and teachers alike. While few school districts will ever have to deal with an episode of school violence as horrific as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Red Lake and Columbine High Schools, and others, most schools must deal with the numbing effects of poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, gang violence, and bullying.
When he was approached in public, Fred Rogers would often deflect attention from himself by asking well-wishers to take a moment and think about the parents, teachers, and other loved ones and friends who had a positive influence on them. In tribute to him, we might do something similar—allow ourselves more time to think about those who have held, and who continue to hold, cherished places in our hearts.
There is a wonderful section in his book, The Mister Rogers Parenting Book, published the year before he died, where Fred Rogers talks about how to get your child to stay in bed at night. “Your child might find it comforting”, he writes, “to have something of yours to keep through the night, like a glove or a small scarf.” I sometimes think about how comforting it might be if each of us and every troubled child had one of those sweaters that Mister Rogers would slip on at the start of each program (In the thirty-plus years he was on television, his mother must have made about 300 million of them!). Wishful thinking, I suppose. Without the comfort of one of his sweaters, our fond memories of Fred Rogers will have to suffice; not bad in a pinch, for what imperishably warm memories he has left us! Perhaps passing along to every child in need some measure of Mister Rogers’ warmth and grace and encouragement is the best thing we can do in 2013 to hold him in fond remembrance.
In recent memory, academic testing and holding educators accountable for students meeting academic achievement standards has been the cardinal impulse of public schools. Teachers and administrators continue to face increasing pressure to respond to a high-stakes accountability movement that often forsakes much of what else (besides core academics) is worthwhile in the curriculum. Accountability policies so narrowly conceived and implemented so often with a "blame and punish" mentality, reduces the education enterprise to a process that, in many instances, has become mechanical and cold. Such a pressure-driven enterprise fails to appreciate the inequitable impact of schooling and society itself on increasingly diverse child and youth populations.
While it is necessary for schools to improve the academic achievement of students, necessity quickly becomes vanity when it threatens to deprive students of the ecstasy of the arts and the grace of civilized discourse; when the academic agenda is advanced in a climate in which there is little time or regard for matters of character, conscience, and interpersonal consequence.
In a perfect world, there may be little need for schools to address anything other than academic standards. Sadly however, incidences of violence, poverty, family dysfunction, and social injustice serve as constant reminders that it's not a perfect world.
Nationwide, over 39 million youth live in poverty; almost a million American school children are homeless. Among western nations, America has the highest teen pregnancy, birth, and legal abortion rates. Three million American children are victims of abuse or neglect. Because it is such a dominating theme of so much of popular youth culture, music, motion pictures, television programming, and video games, violence has become a primary language of the current generation of young Americans. Bullying and gang activity has reached epidemic proportions, and nearly twenty million youth report having experimented with illegal drugs. The majority of adolescents who suffer serious emotional or behavioral problems receive no treatment—over a million of them enter the juvenile justice system yearly.
Simply put, not all students arrive at school every day well-rested, fit and well-nourished, emotionally secure, and ready to learn. With countless young people struggling to manage deprivation and stress in their lives, professional educators step forward to provide support and guidance, not because it’s on some performance test—caring isn’t tested—but because it’s the right thing to do. Simply put, teachers should be recognized for helping to raise children’s hopes as much as they are for helping to raise children’s test scores.
Teaching students representing richly diverse backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances is uniquely rewarding and challenging. Striving to connect in meaningful ways with every student, teachers perform small miracles every day. Surrogate parents to fifteen, twenty, twenty-five or more students, teachers coach, counsel, and console—whatever it takes to help instill in students the belief that contained within each of them is the power to join with others in helping to make positive differences in theirs and in others’ lives, to speak for those whose voices have been silenced, and to stand up on behalf of a cause or two worth fighting for.
Teachers make easy targets when one is looking for where to place blame for why every student isn’t meeting or exceeding academic standards. Teaching has become increasingly stressful as teachers bend to the weight of fresh concern about slashed budgets, insufficient resources, reductions in compensation, threats to contract status, and erosion in the level of respect they once received.
True, no teacher is perfect and some underperform. However, the small percentage of ineffective teachers should not indict the majority of educators, any more than the small percentage of ineffective employees in other professions, trades, or businesses should cast doubt on the vast majority of their peers. Persistently struggling teachers should be offered support with professional improvement. If adequate improvement is not demonstrated, a career transition plan should be implemented.
For one inclined to offer teachers a piece of one’s mind they’re easy enough to locate. When not in their classrooms or homes planning lessons or grading projects teachers can be spotted at the discount store spending personal funds on materials to supplement classroom resources. Look for them after school at the park and ball field supporting their students’ teams, or at the car wash helping with school fund-raisers. Locate them in the audience supporting students’ performances, or volunteering with afterschool clubs. In the evenings, on weekends, and in the summer they can be found attending workshops and classes polishing and renewing their professional skills.
Along with all that we demand of teachers, we should urge them to remain dedicated to helping to prepare students for a civic life in which they will engage with fellow citizens with differing views to develop policies and institutions that can advance shared aspirations. Just as we expect teachers to help students improve academically, we should encourage them to help students develop confidence and resiliency as well. Such a professional orientation enriches human experience, and is as good for business and the workplace as is command of any academic subject.
Seeking neither clamor nor acclaim for themselves, educators are devoted to helping students learn to harness their skills and to exert the power of deeply-held values and beliefs about the sort of community and society that they and their children would inhabit and help sustain. Extending teachers and other professional educators a little gratitude for their efforts in actualizing such devotion would be nice on occasion, but unfortunately of late, certainly not expected.
As the shadow of the second decade of the new millennium continues to lengthen, the disparity between the advantaged in our society and those residing at the margins of American society is thrown into sharp relief. Burdened by poverty, poor health, neglect, bigotry, and emotional isolation, children at the margins may seldom count on the protection of healthy, knowledgeable, caring parents. For many of them—young refugees of the ruin of the American dream—violence has become their first language. One of the tragedies of contemporary American experience is that millions of young people are un-buoyed by societal advantage, facing a future that holds diminishing hope, unlikely to fulfill their promise. Because of inequities of wealth, opportunity and acceptance, and the deforming effects of our social history on the poor, on racial, ethnic, and other minorities, and on many young women, life is more tragedy than ecstasy. These greatly taxed and wounded youth will learn only with great difficulty what we would prefer that they learn, and they will learn much too easily what we would prefer they wouldn’t.
Eudora Welty, one of the most prominent American literary figures of the past century, devoted her life's work to lifting the veil of indifference to each other’s human plight. To such a cause as hers—a call for conscience—American education may do well to re-dedicate itself. Matters of conscience prevail when human wellness, creative self-expression, wonder of the natural world, and intimacy among communities of learners and across cultures are elevated in the curriculum to positions of importance, not merely added on when time permits. The Commonwealth of Virginia—America herself— is best served by an education system that cares about who we are and what we value most deeply, at least as much as about what weknow.
Education should bind us—its beneficent effects should cut across class and cultural lines, racial lines, and gender lines. We must make concerns of the poor and those in whose lives respect and social justice have been rare commodities our concerns. Among the enduring expectations we should have of our program completers is that they imagine societies that are less oppressive and take whatever action they can to help make them more humane.
We must help candidates understand that the “three Rs” don’t make a life. As we help our candidates become increasingly literate in the fields of communication arts, mathematics, science, technology, and the social sciences, we must also help them learn to think critically, ethically, and creatively about events and circumstances that imperil our relationships with others, with other of the planet’s inhabitants, and with the planet itself.
Our place at center stage of human events is a transitory moment in the sweep of history, subject to untold influences that will change humanity for good or ill. A fundamental question before us is which of humankind’s impulses will we allow to hold dominion over others—those that civilize or those that savage? Nightmare or dream… we get to help decide. We must help decide. If there is to be harmony between our ambitions and the imperishable regard we must have for each other and the world, the decisions we make now regarding leadership, education, and the preparation of future community leaders and education practitioners will help make it so.
Destiny looks to us, our P-12 partners, and our critical business and agency friends—to help instill in our candidates the ability and will to think through what they care about most, to deepen their understanding of themselves as human beings, and to develop their capacity for moral deliberation and action. This cause is not provincial, not local, not moored to a particular time and place. This cause is timeless and placeless, and therefore free and enduring.