Afton Schlieff Selected for International Cohort Inspired by Fred Rogers
There's a photo on Springdale Central Junior High assistant principal Afton Schleiff's desk of a girl wearing a sparkly fuchsia top, matching leggings and tap shoes. She has braces, bangs and a barrette situated in a pouf of wavy hair.
It's a portrait of Schleiff as an eighth-grader.
Sticking that framed photo on her desk was the first step after being selected for an international cohort through the "Educator's Neighborhood" learning community. It's a project of the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Mister Rogers kept a collage of his childhood photos in the room where he wrote scripts for his television series.
"I believe they inspired him to remember the feelings of childhood," Schleiff said. "I placed my own teenage photo on my desk to remind me of the feelings of adolescence. I look at it before I speak with a student."
That's just one of the ways she's incorporating Mister Rogers' philosophy into her new role as a school principal. She and other members of her cohort meet each month with a small group in addition to larger, monthly meetings. They delve into Fred Rogers' work and learn from one another.
"His work matters to me because he provided love, safety, connection and acceptance to all. Mister Rogers is a master of self-regulation and co-regulating others. He is intentional about seemingly everything—his self-care, personal routine, family, language, energy, faith, the neighborhood program, learning, and he is passionate about helping children to grow," she said. "I also want to provide connection, acceptance and love to all I come into contact with, hoping to inspire them to take gentle care of themselves and others."
Schleiff recently connected with Dana Winters, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center, as part of her coursework at the U of A. A graduate of the College of Education and Health Professions' Master of Arts in Teaching program in 2005, Schleiff is back in class now, earning a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. Her degree emphasis is on literacy, adolescent and social-emotional learning.
"I am passionate about showing secondary teachers that a social-emotional learning practice or curriculum does not have to be one more thing to implement," she said. "It can be seamlessly woven into their current practice and content."
During spring break, Schleiff will travel to the center to examine artifacts such as scripts, speeches and videos not available anywhere else. She's excited to meet Winters in person and expects the visit to shape her dissertation.
It will also likely have an impact on her role as a new principal.
After graduating from the U of A, Schleiff taught English and was an assistant volleyball coach at Southwest Junior High. She was also department chair and lead English teacher for almost a decade.
The staff at Southwest felt like family, and it was difficult for her to make the leap to Central. The warm welcome she received from the superintendent and other principals alleviated all her fears, though.
"It reminded me of something I heard Mister Rogers say: 'What we can know is that each one of us, young or old, longs to be cherished. We long to know that there's a welcome for us in this world,'" she said.
Even though her job has changed, she's determined to remain a welcoming presence in students' lives. And to implement other wisdom inspired by Mister Rogers, of course.
Schleiff said, "I think of this Mister Rogers quote every day and use it to guide each interaction I have: Love is at the root of everything — all learning, all parenting, all relationships — love or the lack of it.'"