Yet Fred Rogers offered more than an alternate universe of safety and stability. He allowed his learners to inhabit a cognitive landscape designed to confront reality. Yes, his puppets and props engaged children in a world of fantasy, but he always brought them back to reality on the trolley car. Mister Rogers dealt with the death of pets, with divorce, and counseled parents on how to talk with their children about war. His reality was soft and sensitive, and it always seemed to end on a note of emphasis of individuality: “There is no one exactly like YOU, never has been, never will be.”
Children must be allowed to learn in communities where the environments are intentionally supportive. The developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1978), saw clearly that a gap existed between what teachers know and what learners know. He termed this gap the Zone of Proximal Development, and asserted that only the social support of others could allow children to reach their potential in learning.
Teachers are “relaters” when they care about the teacher-student dynamic, when they model an authority of moral values, when they are committed to the idea that learning and life at their deepest levels are relational , and when they invest themselves in a worldview that defines human reality as spiritual rather than material entity.
Relationships are important. In America and surely around the world, educators feel the increasing effect of the disintegrating family. Teaching, more than any profession, absorbs the day-to-day impact of societal dysfunction.
How conceptual frameworks have been built into teachers’ consciousness about what constitutes human beings affects teacher behavior and attitude in schooling. The building of these conceptual frameworks has been named “theories of mind” or a way of mentalizing others’ behavior (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). It is how human beings understand each other and thus themselves. It certainly includes the world of intentions, desires, and beliefs.
What teachers as relaters believe is from the unseen world of spiritual goals, and it makes a difference in practice. The teacher-student dynamic is the focal point because it constitutes a relationship. Lack of practice or application of a belief system can constitute disbelief in a spiritual goal structure. The spiritual has been separated from the social because of disbelief in spiritual ends. Beliefs can be sociocultural or theological in the realm of spiritual goals.
Sociocultural beliefs occupy a spiritual realm because they are assumptions that influence the way we think and feel, assumptions that are unseen but powerful attitudinal qualities and motivations, assumptions that impact human behavior. Such beliefs can be as simple as a teacher’s touch on a student’s shoulder, eye contact, and smile. Or, they can be as profound as a change in how teachers perceive and understand their students.
It was Rogers who introduced “facilitator of learning” into the educational lexicon. He was seeking a term other than “teacher” that would match with his conception of a teacher who had no intention of making anyone to know anything, a teacher who held three dispositions he saw as vital to great teaching: realness, empathy, and prizing.
American education is currently engaged in a battle for the minds of disadvantaged students, hence the nationally-concerted effort to leave no learners behind. Ladson-Billings (2006) reminds us that the problem at the classroom level that teachers must confront in teaching disadvantaged students of color is not about what to teach. It is primarily about “how we think—about the social contexts, about the students, about the curriculum, and about instruction.” (p. 30).
Sociocultural and theological beliefs can find common ground as part of a spiritual goal structure, but they are different in conception. Anthropologists and sociologists define core values like equal respect and honesty as behavior patterns accepted by the dominant group of the culture (Pai et al., 2006, Spindler & Spindler, 1990). Theological perspectives tend not to be so relative in definition, choosing instead to rely upon the authority of the Bible or the Church.
Willard (1998) brings some theological clarity to this other dimension, this reality of the spiritual. He describes the spiritual as not something humans ought to be, but something they already are in ultimate nature and destiny. For Willard, it is not just something beyond human senses to be considered in a negative comparison, but a positive form of energy. It is what renowned environmental scientist John Houghton (2006) describes as the fifth dimension beyond space (length, width, depth) and time.
Separate reality and fantasy for children. Electronic entertainment obscures the line for us as well as children, only more so for children. Be thoughtful in limiting children’s exposure to the Information Age.
Use music to teach, to communicate, not to entertain.