Teaching Opinion

Habit of Perspective and the Little Prince

By John T. McCrann — March 10, 2016 4 min read
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Harvest Collegiate High School has organized our curriculum around four Habits of Heart and three Habits of Heart which we believe “promote critical thinking and active responsibility.” Each month in our group gatherings, we focus on a different habit (for those keeping score at home, we also devote a month to each of our three commitments -- Commitment to Peace, Commitment to Diversity, Commitment to Growth -- thus rounding out the 10 month school year).

March’s focus is the Habit of Perspective, in which we try to answer this question: How does this look differently from someone else’s shoes?

This habit holds a special place in my heart.

I had a formative experience in this habit when I was in 10th grade. That year, I read the book Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in French 2 with Ms Propst. Reading it and writing a paper in French was an empowering experience for me, one that helped ignite in me a love of language and culture. It was an experience that would inspire me to travel to new parts of the world.

The book is written from the perspective of a pilot stranded in the desert where he meets a wise if young visitor from another planet. Translated versions of The Little Prince are easy to come by so if you have not read it, pick it up at your local book store or library.

The book begins with my favorite illustration of the Habit of Perspective. The first person narrator recounts the story of his short-lived artistic career, which began and ended with two drawings when he was six (read it in English and in French). “Dessin numéro 1" is a picture of a snake that has eaten an elephant, which resembles a hat.

“J’ai montré mon chef d’oeuvre aux grandes personnes et je leur ai demandé si mon dessin leur faisait peur. (I showed my masterpiece to grownups and asked if it frightened them).”

All the grownups saw a hat and were confused by the question, why should they be scared of a hat?

Frustrated, the narrator gives up on art in favor of pursuits that are more “raisonable” (sensible). “Les grandes personnes ne comprennent jamais rien toutes seules (Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves),” he laments.

For me, the experience of being a new student teacher was one constant lesson in the Habit of Perspective. For most of the semester, my students and I butted heads about what was and was not important. Much like Saint-Exupéry’s narrator, many of my students felt like I could not understand them - and the feeling was mutual.

As I reflected on the experience, I recognized that at the core of these conflicts was an inability or an unwillingness to understand one another’s perspective.

Ms. Propst, the teacher who had taught Le Petit Prince to me in 10th grade, was an example of a teacher who I felt understood me. This did not mean that she let me do whatever I wanted (in fact just the opposite, I remember spending several afternoons that year with her in detention) but it did mean that she listened to me. Her example helped me think about how I could improve my own Habit of Perspective in ways that might ameliorate my relationships with the adolescents in my class.

Those of you following the education discussion these days are no doubt familiar with another book, Ed Boland’s The Battle for 314. It tells the story of a career-changing teacher who is taken aback by some of the behaviors exhibited by teenagers at a New York City high school where he works as a new teacher.

I wonder if some of his frustration might have been ameliorated by a bit of growth in the Habit of Perspective. Perhaps what he understood to be acting out was an attempt to get attention? Perhaps what he felt like was a generous act on his part to teach in a low-income neighborhood felt patronizing to students who had been in that neighborhood before he got there, and would remain after he left?

I will never excuse disrespectful or disruptive student behavior, but in order to really deal with misbehavior we must try to understand why students are acting out.

The summer between my student teaching year and my first year with a classroom of my own I got Saint-Exupéry’s “dessin numéro 1" tattooed on my wrist. It helps me remember Ms Propst (who passed away unexpectedly a few years after I graduated).

It also serves as a reminder that my students and I can look at the same thing, but see something totally different.

This certainly doesn’t mean they’re right and I’m wrong, but it also doesn’t mean that I’m right and they’re wrong. It does mean that we all ought to learn from Saint-Exupéry, Ms. Propst, and other wise folks who have walked among us. Those who have successfully developed the ability to answer one of life’s great questions: How does this look differently from someone else’s shoes?

Photo 1: Habit of Perspective and my tattoo by Jerry Wong

Photo 2: Sometimes students and teachers can see the same thing but understand it totally differently. By Mary Conroy Almada

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