What Mr. Rogers Means to Me, by Ward Roberts

What Mr. Rogers Means to Me, by Ward Roberts


Ward Roberts, WFISD’s director of innovation, has been a fan of children’s television host Fred Rogers for  a long time – long before he borrowed the Fred Rogers persona as “Mr. Roberts” in WFISD’s Back-to-School rally in August.

Ward has admired Mr. Rogers for his perspective on valuing children that is as timely today as it was in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. That sentiment has blossomed nationally in two recent films on Fred Rogers’ career. One, a documentary titled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” can be viewed on Netflix. Another film, titled “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” debuts in theaters Nov. 22.

So what might Fred Rogers’ message be to WFISD educators if he were still alive today? Three things, said Mr. Roberts in an interview with WFISD Communications Specialist Ann Work Goodrich. And as a bonus, Mr. Roberts shares the loving approach he believes Mr. Rogers would take to even the most divisive of issues: building new school facilities.


WFISD: How does Mr. Rogers’ message affect us?

Ward: A big push across the nation – and in our district – is the need for social and emotional learning. That’s all of what Mr. Rogers was about. Look at No. 4 on our Strategic Plan: “We will develop systems to identify and meet the physical, emotional and social needs of students.” As a district, we’re trying to address students’ emotional needs more than ever before.

One way is to help one another. In one episode, Mr. Rogers was helping children deal with moments of tragedy that they might see on television, like a school shooting or a hurricane.  He said, in moments like this, when you see something tragic, notice all the people who are helping. He told them that maybe one person did one bad thing, but there are hundreds of people who are there helping.

That puts it in perspective, but it’s also very comforting. Helping one another is something we all need to do. Whether we’re helping a kid or another adult.

Most people realize that. We just need reminders from time to time.

Mr. Rogers also told students their feelings and emotions are OK. It’s not bad that you have those feelings. You just need to deal with them in a productive way. Dealing with feelings and emotions is a sign of strength.

On YouTube, you can still find Mr. Rogers giving testimony in front of Congress in 1969 when he was seeking funding for public broadcasting. He said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”

Feelings are mentionable: So you’re mad. That’s OK. Let’s talk about it. Manageable: You don’t have to stay there.  There are things you can do to work out of that.

In a school, that might look like a teacher saying, “Oh, I’m so sick of how that person is treating me,” and another teacher might respond, “Yeah, some days are tough. Is there something we can do to work through that?” Or, for a frustrated student you might say, “In all the things that are bad, there are still positive things. You’re here for a reason. Can we tap into that?”

Then, a third thing Mr. Rogers did: He helped other people feel better about themselves.

We can tell ourselves, our students, and our coworkers, “Don’t beat yourself up about that. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody is scared from time to time. There’s still something special and valuable about you and the contributions you can make.”

Sometimes that “You are special” line gets a bad rap. People turn it into, “Oh, everybody gets a trophy. Everybody wants their own way.” That’s not the way I see that. The “you are special” thing means you are special, just the way you are. You don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to prove your value to me. Because I know you have value. Just because someone else is taller or faster, it doesn’t mean they’re better.”


WFISD: Of all your exposure to Mr. Rogers, what has meant the most to you?

Ward: Revisiting Mr. Rogers every once in a while helps me remember my reason for getting into education: to work with kids. That’s not new or groundbreaking. But sometimes you just need to be reminded. Typically teachers know how to be a good listener and how to build kids up. Sometimes they just need a reminder of how important that is. That’s true of the kids who are your students or your own kids – or the people who are your spouses and family members. Sometimes we get busy and just make assumptions. We say, “Oh, they’re OK.” Maybe they’re not.


WFISD: How many kids do you have?

Ward: I have three. My oldest boy is 27, my daughter is 23, and my youngest is an 8th grader who is almost 14. They are my best teachers in a lot of ways. My oldest is in the Peace Corps in Guyana, South America. He started his school year teaching there in September; he’ll be there for two years. He got a good placement: Guyana is a former English colony so they speak English there.


WFISD: How might you adapt Mr. Rogers’ philosophy toward something potentially divisive that is facing us: the building and closing of school facilities?

Ward: I think the district did it right with its Strategic Plan. Let’s look at it. What’s our goal? Our goal is not to have new facilities necessarily. Our first goal is, “We will maximize human potential through a culture of high expectations.” In other words, we want to maximize what kids can do. So what facilities do we need to help us maximize what kids can do?

Our second goal is that we want kids to be creative problem-solvers. What facilities will move them closest to this goal?

Another goal is to meet the physical, emotional and social needs of students. How can we best do that? Can we do it with the stuff we’ve got right now? Or would it be better if we had a place like the Career Education Center?

The goal was not originally to have a cool Career Education Center – though it is cool. The goal was to give kids better futures. And we couldn’t have done that at Carrigan and with the programs the way they were configured across the district. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t efficient. It wasted money and staff. The way we accomplished the very valuable goal was we built the Career Education Center.

There’s nothing in the strategic plan that says we need better test scores and better buildings. Those may be the way we get to the goals, and they probably are, but the real goal is, “Let’s insure that students are engaged in meaningful and relevant learning. Let’s be efficient. Let’s solve problems.” Right?


WFISD: That sounds like something Mr. Rogers would say. He wouldn’t push for new buildings. But if we need them to help students learn, it would be a good step.

Ward: That’s what I believe. And that’s what’s in our Strategic Plan. I like this! Under “Our Beliefs,” the the 5th bullet point is: “Everybody deserves the resources they need to be successful.” That came from the committee that wrote the Strategic Plan, but you can hear Mr. Rogers say that.

Bullet point No. 6: “A culture of safety and support is essential to learning.” Yes, I agree with that. Could we be safer with better facilities? Of course we could. If we had new buildings, would it be easier to get people the resources they need? Yes, it would. Instead of spending $60,000 a year repairing ceilings and stairs that are falling down, we could have another counselor.

A million dollars would pay for 20 teachers or 20 counselors.

So maybe we’re on the path more than we realized. It’s a great start.

WFISD: When we get stuck on other issues – like affection for an old school or tradition or rivalry – we’re often thinking about ourselves. I. I. I. I.  Mr. Rogers would advise us to be thinking more along the lines of helping others.

Ward: And doing what’s best for kids.