A Little Love Goes a Long Way: How Mr. Rogers Shaped My Teaching Philosophy

“Love is at the root of all learning.” These are the words that resonated most poignantly with me after finally seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Fred Rogers. As a part of the generation of children who grew up in his neighborhood, I came away from the film feeling like I’d just spent nearly two hours hugging my long-lost grandfather. I’m not setting out to offer anything like a balanced review of the documentary, as much as the academic portion of my brain is itching to analyze the rhetorical devices the narrative employed. What I can say is that this is not a film for skeptics; the target audience is clearly those who spent their mornings or afternoons in the “neighborhood.” It’s a film that, whatever else it does, activates the nostalgic nerve endings of childhood memory.

Beyond that, though, the film was, at least for me, an invitation to reflect on Mr. Rogers’s legacy and a call to those of us who’ve now taken places as adults in our own neighborhoods to live out that legacy. As I listened to the story of his life, I realized in one of those rare Road-to-Damascus epiphanies that Mr. Rogers’s assertion that “love is at the root of all learning” encapsulates my philosophy as a teacher. If you are a teacher, whether you teach children or adults, your first goal is to motivate, because motivation is the momentum that fuels learning. Students must want to learn, and in my experience, the key ingredient is encouraging them to believe that they can learn; learning might not come easily, but it can come. When I encourage my students to learn, to keep trying, to revise mistakes in their writing, or to revisit passages in a text they’ve been grappling with, I’m telling them that I believe in their capacity to learn, and more than that, I believe in their capacity to succeed. I believe in who they are and what they can accomplish in this world, and for that faith to be authentic, it needs to come from a place of love.

Mr. Rogers teaches us that we need to learn to expect and accept mistakes, because mistakes are a part of how we learn. Guiding a student through a path of mistakes to understanding requires patience; what is patience if not a form of kindness, and what is kindness if not a form of love? Of course, we teach by example; if we want to teach others to cultivate self-confidence, we must demonstrate that in ourselves. Growing up as the only student with a disability in a very small elementary school, I spent much of my childhood struggling to find my place in a world where I never seemed to fit. Classmates jeered at me to get out of the way when I had to stand inches from the blackboard to decipher the day’s instructions or laughed at me if I was a page behind the rest of the class when we read aloud. One of my first and most vivid memories of school involved being held down on the playground while boys shoved leaves in my hair. Sometimes I’d sit on the curb during recess and wonder, if God had made me as I was, why were others so unkind? When I’d hear Daniel the Tiger singing “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a mistake,” he articulated my own confusion; why did God make me as he did if he knew the struggles I’d have to face? Then, after school, or on days when I was home sick, I’d sit in front of the TV, just close enough to see Mr. Rogers looking out of the camera, directly at me as he sang, “I like you as you are, exactly and precisely.” Mr. Rogers didn’t know my name; he didn’t know where I lived or went to school, and yet he looked into my heart and told me precisely what I needed to hear.

Most often when I think of Mr. Rogers, a single, vivid memory comes to mind. In this memory, I’m no older than 4 or 5, curled up on the sofa beneath a pile of blankets, home sick from preschool and watching PBS. Mr. Rogers appears on the screen, singing “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and I smile, tummy ache, aching throat, or whatever childhood ailment I’m suffering now forgotten.
“Okay,” I reply, directing my words to the TV. “I’ll be your neighbor. Just let me get a little closer.” I climb down from the sofa and cross the room, tangle of blankets and all, until I’m close enough to the TV screen that I can place the palm of my hand against the glass as if I could touch his face.

At that age, I almost invariably had to sit within a foot or two of the TV screen to see clearly, but this was more than the mere pull of a childish curiosity to see; this was a desire for physical closeness. I believed, perhaps, in my 4 year-old mind, that if I got close enough, I could throw my arms around Mr. Rogers in a hug and feel the fabric of his sweater tickling my cheek. In a blurry and confusing world, I’d found a space where I felt safe to grow—a place where I felt cherished, and this yearning for contact felt no less natural than cuddling up to my father or my grandfather.

Now, roughly 30 years later, I find myself striving to cultivate that trust when I stand in front of a class. I know that when students enter my classroom, their bookbags aren’t the only baggage they carry. Those burdens, whether caring for family members or juggling multiple jobs, can sometimes make the task of writing a 3-page paper or reading a textbook chapter seem insurmountable, and a little love and encouragement can go a long way toward lightening the shadow cast by such obstacles. I’ll try to chat with individual students before class, and always, regardless of what’s on the day’s agenda, I spend the first few minutes of every period asking everyone how they’re doing. More importantly, I conclude each lesson by wishing them well for the rest of the day and reminding them that my office door is always open. This is not just a formality; it’s an invitation. It’s a way of letting them know that they always have someone to turn to, and I know when I extend this invitation that on any given day, there might be a student for whom this gesture of kindness, however small, is the only one they’ll receive. Of course, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Mr. Rogers alone taught me this; I was blessed with many teachers who exemplified the link between love and learning. I like to think, though, that perhaps just a little, I’m helping keep Mr. Rogers’s legacy alive—just, as he might put it himself, by being me.