Distance Learning: What We Can Learn From Mr. Rogers

I was fortunate enough to grow up watching Mr. Rogers on television. If you didn't, please stop what you're doing and watch this video of him testifying about his work before Congress in 1969 to get a glimpse into who he was and the work he did.


Mr. Rogers is an icon who spent decades making an indelible impact on generations of children ... all through a television screen. And I think there are some big lessons we can learn from him in this age of distance learning, when teachers are feeling like they're working hard at everything but not having the impact they want to have on anything.

Here's what I saw Mr. Rogers do that I think can apply in our distance-learning teaching right now:

  • Acknowledge the screen. We are trying to teach and students are trying to learn through a screen, and yet we still want things to feel the same virtually as they do in person - and we fight against that when it doesn't. Yet Mr. Rogers explicitly called out that there was a screen separating him from his learners, and he used it as a tool to reach them in new ways. He seemed to use the screen more as a window than a television, acknowledging that it was there and then working with it rather than against it. Distance learning will be different, and it's important for adults and kids to name it together, accept it, and then work with it - both its limitations and its new possibilities.   
  • Use the familiar. Nothing is more classically Mr. Rogers than coming in the door, singing the "neighbor" song, and changing into a cardigan and tennis shoes. He did it every. single. time. And there was real comfort in knowing that, even when the rest of a kid's world might be scary and unpredictable, you could always count on Mr. Rogers to welcome you by doing the same thing every time. As adults, we may project our own impatience with repetition on students, feeling that they may be bored with the same thing over and over, yet it's important to remember that children - especially small ones - thrive on predictability and familiarity. So, use that same entry or dismissal routine every time they log on or post assignments in the same format every time, and know that you're doing a good thing for your students.
  • Keep it simple. This is a mantra at Salem right now, and Mr. Rogers was a master at keeping things simple. He didn't set his hair on fire, dance on desks, or have elaborate special effects. The fanciest he got was to use what some would argue are disconcerting puppets. He consistently leaned on the simple basics of what we know works best in early learning: the power of a well-told story, leveraging kids' natural curiosity, and using language that creates a culture of caring, acceptance, and safety. Mr. Rogers always kept it slow, simple, and soothing.
  • Monitor and adjust. One of my favorite stories about Mr. Rogers has to do with his daily feeding of the tank of fish he kept on the set. Early in the program, Mr. Rogers would simply feed the fish as he passed through from the living room to the kitchen on set, perhaps with some simple background music playing. One day, he received a letter from a visually impaired child who was worried that the fish were not being regularly fed because she couldn't hear him doing it each time. From that time on, Mr. Rogers always narrated his feeding of the fish so that all children could know what was happening. For distance learning, it's more critical than ever that we monitor students carefully and adjust quickly and in ways that are most effective. We can use student surveys, check-in routines, and feedback on our instruction from students to pay careful attention to what is and is not working, and then make (often small yet powerful) changes to our practice.
  • Trust in teaching. One of my favorite quotes comes from William Wordsworth who wrote, "They will love what we have loved, and we will teach them how." There's perhaps no profession more inherently human in its work than teaching, and that's true whether it's happening through a screen or in-person. Remember that kids can fall in love with you and with learning, no matter how the teaching happens. Millions of adults today simply adore Mr. Rogers because of how they fell in love with all he taught them ... through a screen. Mr. Rogers is beloved not in spite of the screen, but because he used it as a powerful medium for learning. And I think we can do the same.

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