What The Little Prince Can Teach Us About Teaching

I’ve loved The Little Prince since I was a child, and with each reading or exposure, I get something more out of it. As a kid, I’m certain I missed some of the symbolism or allegories, but I’m sure I empathized with the fact that I felt adults didn’t always understand me, or have the right priorities.

This summer, I re-read The Little Prince for the first time since becoming an educator, and below are my three take-aways for educators:

1. On Authority

On one planet, the prince meets a King, and

“what the king fundamentally insisted upon was that his authority should be respected. He tolerated no disobedience.”

In his attempts to be obeyed, he would “order” actions, such as “I order you sometimes to yawn and sometimes to [not yawn].” In the book, we are meant to think this king is ridiculous, but I’ve often observed teachers wanting authority for authority’s sake. Students should not listen to you because of some perceived authority.

Students should listen to you because they trust you, respect you, and you have a reason for teaching what you are teaching.

Even if a part of your curriculum is something that has been handed down to you that you disagree with, it is appropriate to include students in critiquing that element of the curriculum. When I had to teach 4th graders test preparation, we discussed the downsides of standardized preparation (with comics such as this one), we discussed the importance of task familiarity on testing (which made us realize that despite our gripes, this class was useful after all), and we discussed the best ways we show our learning, which allowed students to reflect on themselves as learners.

2. On Expectations

Despite his insistence on authority, the king described above was a “reasonable king,” thus he realized that he couldn’t have unrealistic expectations (as that would reflect poorly on him as a king):

“‘[I]f I ordered a general to change himself into a sea bird, and the general did no obey me, that would not be the fault of the general. It would be my fault.'”

How often do we have unrealistic expectations? We expect 1st graders to be writing paragraphs, without having taught them about the structure of one; we expect students to read without having given them a minute of phonics; we expect students with Specific Learning Disabilities to learn in ways that are not evidence-based, and then act surprised when they are not successful.

Teachers must recognize their important role in education. Almost none of what we teach is innate, so without clear teaching, students should not be expected to know most of what we teach. We do a disservice to students if we expect them to know everything we teach, and we do a disservice to our profession.

3. On Responsibility

In The Little Prince, the following quote is about the prince and a fox. I think it’s a great analogy for teaching, but that only works if we replace the word “tame” with “teach, so bear with me as I say this is another of my favorite, teaching-related quotes:

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

This quote comes after a beautiful passage about how the little prince grew to tame (and love!) a rose he had, which described the care and love the prince took with this rose, a rose he’d watered, sheltered, and listened to. My take on this quote (after my initial reading in which I felt “rose” was a sexist metaphor for partners who need “taming,” a la Taming of the Shrew) is that we are responsible for our students.

We are particularly responsible for our students while they are in our classrooms, but we are also responsible for them beyond our classroom walls.

What we teach students should allow them to be confident and competent. We must practice Gradual Release of Responsibility so that students (all students) may be independent in their application of any skills or content that we teach them. We must teach students to reflect on what they are like as learners, and to self-advocate, if necessary. Our effect on our students doesn’t end when they leave our classes, and for students with effective teachers, that’s a gift!

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