The other night at a family party, I fell into a conversation about education. Not surprising given the fact that Hubby and I were both teachers, and members of his extended family are or were elementary teachers, college instructors, and even one former school board trustee. Anyway, one of his family asked me to describe my favourite teachers when I was a student. She said she thought her “best teachers” were the ones who were hard on her. As a teacher myself, you’d probably expect me to agree that respect and a little fear are valuable tools in the classroom. But you know, I’ve always thought that a little kindness worked much better than fear. That was true for me as a child, and as a student, and it was true for me as a teacher.
I agree about the respect. I think that it’s important for students to respect teachers. But fear was never a tool that I wielded in the classroom. That’s because I tried very hard to model my teacher-self on the teachers I’d loved. And the teachers whom I loved as a child were inordinately kind.
I was an anxious child. I suffered from “school phobia” for a time. For one nightmarish semester in grade three, I was a mess every morning before school. I’d cry and cry, and sometimes even throw up, and Mum would have to physically put me on the school bus. Our family doctor had told her that if she didn’t make me go to school, I’d never go. When I was grown and studying to be a teacher myself (I know… go figure) I learned that school phobia can be caused by separation anxiety, and is sometimes a reciprocal thing, triggered by the fears of both child and parent.
Anyway, once the bus had pulled away from our driveway, I’d be fine. I actually loved school. And I especially loved my grade three teacher Miss Barrett who was always kind and calm and smiling.
My conversation at that family party reminded me of an article by Mary Pflum Peterson which my sister shared the other day on Facebook. A couple of years ago, Ms. Peterson produced a news segment about Fred Rogers, host of the famous children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, to coincide with the release of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? The recent release of the movie about Mr. Rogers, starring Tom Hanks, made Peterson think about that television segment she produced, and the old episodes of the show she’d binge-watched as research. And how, to her great surprise, her kids, who had no idea who Mr. Rogers was, began watching with her. And loved what they saw.
She says her kids liked Mr. Rogers because he was kind and calm, and they were absolutely certain that he liked them back. Turns out, Peterson says, that “in a world of so much chaos and noise, kids like calm sincerity.” You can read her article for yourself here.
I didn’t grow up watching Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood. But I faithfully watched a Canadian children’s show called The Friendly Giant. And so did most of the people I know. How we loved Friendly! Like Mr. Rogers he was kind and calm and easy. In each episode, we visited him in his castle, where he played the recorder and interacted with a puppet giraffe named Jerome, and a rooster named Rusty who lived in a cloth bag that hung on the castle wall.
At the beginning of each show, Friendly would narrate the goings on in the village below the castle. In winter we might see the snow plow head down a miniature road past toy farms. Or in summer we’d see cows in the fields. Then he’d chat with Jerome and Rusty, and they’d play music. I always loved when Rusty would disappear down into his little bag and pull up all manner of musical instruments. How did he do that, I’d wonder? Funny that I never wondered at a rooster living in a cloth bag.
All day today while I’ve been writing, I’ve been watching old clips of The Friendly Giant. Except for a spell this afternoon when I went to get my hair cut. And even then Carmen and I laughed and reminisced about our favourite parts of the show that we’d both watched as kids. I remembered how I would not let my Mum turn off the television at the end, even once the credits had started. That’s because at the end of the credits, after the drawbridge on Friendly’s castle had been pulled up, the sky would darken, and the moon would come up behind the castle. And just at the last second before the camera switched away, a cardboard cow would jump over the moon. No matter what, I could NOT miss that cow.
Have a look at the segment below. Jerome’s dancing is priceless. He was a bit of a drama queen, I think. And when he calls Rusty “clever feathers,” well, I laughed out loud at that. The segment includes the show’s ending, the familiar theme song, the tiny chairs pulled up to the fireplace in the castle, supposedly for us, the visitors. And the cow. The cow jumps over the moon at the very, very end, although it’s hard to see. Sigh. That made me smile.
As a child I loved The Friendly Giant because it was calm and quiet. Friendly and Jerome were always kind to each other, and to Rusty. They might gently tease, but it was not mean-spirited teasing. It was teasing that said “I know you,” and I feel comfortable enough with you to be able to pull your leg just a little. I remember another favourite teacher, Mr. Piers, teasing me in grade school. His teasing never hurt my feelings. Quite the contrary. It made me smile. That’s because it was kindly meant. And was based on his understanding of who I was as a person. Like Mary Pflum Peterson’s kids said about Mr. Rogers, I knew that my teacher was kind, and that he liked me as much as I liked him.
You know, I had no idea where this post was going when I started writing. Just that I wanted to say something about the value of a little kindness. I know that there have been times in my life when I was not kind. When I valued the smart, funny remark over someone else’s feelings. And I don’t claim to have been a perfect teacher, always kind, calm, and unruffled. Ha. I wish.
But I do know that I always hoped that kids wanted to be in my class, that they felt safe coming to my class. I remember teachers I knew as a student who I feared so much that I always, always messed up around them. Panic never engendered achievement, at least for me. I remember that sinking feeling as a kid, of fear and dread when I entered some classrooms. And I remember the opposite. The feeling of being welcomed, of entering a safe space where we could relax and smile and just learn.
I think that Mary Pflum Peterson learned a lesson that we all need to learn. She learned that her “twenty-first century kids,” as she put it, still need the calm guidance of kind adults. That these lessons we thought had fallen out of style are still important. And I think that we all need a little kindness.
In fact, given all the crazy, chaotic, angry posturing we keep hearing these days, wouldn’t it be cool to send some people back in time for a kindness refresher course? I’m thinking of hours and hours of binge-watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood or The Friendly Giant… or both. Followed by some time on the naughty step if they haven’t yet learned how to be kind, how to share, how to speak with a civil tongue, and how not to tell fibs. Ha.
What do you think?
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