I recently had the opportunity to watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the inspiring biopic about Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood). Kindness, love and a deep and abiding respect for children and their feelings are the hallmarks of his work. Rogers tirelessly advocated for and demonstrated the importance of listening to children and responding truthfully to their questions and concerns. No question was too silly, no remark unminded. He considered with great thoughtfulness all that was expressed to him by young minds and hearts, and the children responded with trust and love.
In the film, there is a brief mention of Rogers’ long-time association with child psychologist Margaret McFarland. An associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. McFarland was the co-founder, along with her colleagues Dr. Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson, of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center, a place where pediatric students could study typical child development. Her background provided her with a rich understanding of the emotional lives of children. She and Rogers met weekly, and spoke on the phone daily, about his ideas for the Neighborhood. One of her primary tenets was, “attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught,” meaning that if the adults around a child are excited, inspired and enthusiastic about an activity, the children will be, too. In Stuart Omans’ and Maurice J. O’Sullivan’s book Shakespeare Plays the Classroom, Rogers shares a story about the time Dr. McFarland invited a well-known sculptor to Arsenal: “Dr. McFarland said to him, ‘I don’t want you to teach sculpting. All I want you to do is to love clay in front of the children.’” The sculptor came once a week for the entire term and “loved” his clay while the children played around him, resulting in their own enthusiasm for the medium. Rogers concludes: “So like most good things, ‘teaching’ has to do with honesty.” Or, in today’s vernacular: it’s all about authenticity.
In the early 2000’s I had the pleasure of teaching at a Bev Bos- and Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool in Tucson, Arizona. During my first week on the job, the director pulled me aside and asked how things were going. I told her everything was going smoothly, and I was enjoying it. Her response changed my life: “Just remember, you are not here to teach anyone anything. You are here to BE WHO YOU ARE with the children.” I was flabbergasted. In my previous preschool experience, I had worked very hard to be a “good teacher” – to meet each child’s needs and provide safe and meaningful activities in a kind, caring and developmentally-appropriate way. It wasn’t about me -- it was about them. To “be who I was” with children seemed crazy – my perception of myself at that time was a jumble of disparate pieces, some presentable and others not. How was I supposed to sort this out and turn it into something “presentable” for 3 and 4 year olds?? The thought was both terrifying and exhilarating. Did I dare to open myself, to discover who I truly was, and then share that with the children? It was a challenge for me not only as a preschool teacher, but as a human being on the planet. I decided to take the challenge. And I have not looked back!
Over time and with much support, I began to let down my guard and share more of who I was – or who I perceived myself to be – with my students. Hidden talents and abilities, creative ideas and previously unconsidered possibilities rose to the fore. And, as in Margaret McFarland’s example, the more I allowed myself the freedom to just BE in the classroom, the more the children also relaxed and allowed themselves to BE as well. The pre-defined roles of “teacher” and “student” gave way to authentic relationships based on trust, caring, partnership, insight and creativity. We created a community together of love and connection. Yes, some days are hard, and things do not always (or ever!) go the way we have planned. But, as we learn to love and support one another, to try new things, to succeed sometimes and fail at others, we discover more about who we are and what we are capable of. We are intrepid explorers, uncovering new meanings and blazing new trails in the world around us, and discovering ourselves along the way. And isn’t that what life – and learning – are truly about?
November 18, 2018
Susan Hunt has been working in the field of Early Childhood Education for over 30 years. She is currently a preschool teacher at Imagine That…Creative Children’s Center in Grants Pass, Oregon.
Flecker, Sally Ann, “When Fred Met Margaret”, Pitt Med, University of Pittsburgh, Jim Judkis, Photographer, Winter 2014, https://www.pittmed.health.pitt.edu/story/when-fred-met-margaret
 As quoted in Ibid.