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Miss Nelson Is Missing!

by James Marshall and Harry Allard


Miss Nelson is Missing! discusses many philosophical subjects, including identity, respect, fear, power, and deception.

Miss Nelson’s classroom is out of control. Her students run around the room and throw spitballs. She’s not able to convince the students to be better, but maybe a substitute teacher–Viola Swamp–can teach them to behave.

Read aloud video by Dramatic StoryTime Theater

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Miss Nelson is Missing discusses many philosophical themes, which include identity, respect, fear, power, and deception. The question sets encourage children to explore: what is respect and who deserves respect? What is fear and what are we afraid of? What is it to have power and do people need power? And is it okay to deceive others?

In the story, Miss Nelson the teacher has trouble controlling her classroom. To get the children to behave, she disguises herself and comes in as a strict substitute teacher. The students do not misbehave in the presence of the substitute. When Miss Nelson returns back to the classroom, the children are so thankful for having her back and they behave better with Miss Nelson.

Respect is one of the first themes mentioned in the story. Respect is of great importance in everyday life. As children, we are taught to respect teachers, parents, elders, school rules, family and cultural traditions, and other people’s feelings and rights. It can be hard to specify what respect is. These questions help students to explore what is involved in respecting others and oneself. The discussion will bring up the issue of whether we respect someone because of their title or position. Do we respect people like our teachers because we are told to, even if how we were brought up does not agree with their actions or beliefs? These questions also ask if showing respect just means doing the appropriate action or if intent must be known to determine if an action is respectful (this ties into the fear question). The questions also interrogate if respect is a right or an honor.

Fear is another theme in the story. Encourage the children to discuss what they are afraid of and why, and also how they are able to overcome that fear. This discussion may lead to an interesting conversation about whether one action done out of fear is different than doing the same action out of respect. Do children respect who they are told to respect because they are afraid of what will happen if they are disrespectful? Is it still respect if the behavior stems from fear? The discussion will also include whether or not we can tell if someone is afraid by their appearance and actions. Some children may say that if you are afraid it will always show on the outside, and some may say that you can be afraid on the inside and not show it. Some may also say that because you have a reaction to an event, your body reacts to the event and causes you to be afraid. This comment could lead to whether our physical response causes fear or if fear causes our physical response. Is it is better to show that you are afraid or not to show that you are afraid? If you don’t show that you are afraid, are you still afraid? Is it okay to use one’s fear to achieve a good end? Does the end justify the means?

Power is a theme mentioned in the story. Miss Nelson loses control of her class and therefore does not have any power over the children. The questions will engage the children in a discussion concerning the meaning of power, whether we need power, and how one gains and loses power. Power can be given to us and can also be taken away. Do we have control over any power that we have, and is it ever better to let others have power over you? Children are always asked to give the power they have to grown-ups, and it is important to ask them why that happens. Can power ever be achieved if those that are under it truly don’t want it? Do we have power because we are respected? Discussing these questions will give the students some understanding of what it is to have power.

The last two themes of identity and deception are linked in the story. Miss Nelson disguises her identity to deceive the children. Identity ties in with the previous themes of respect and power. Do people change who they are to gain acceptance, respect, and power? Can we change our identities and be the same person, or are we different? What defines our identities? Are there essential parts that make us who we are? If you change everything about yourself, are you the same or a new person?

Identity ties into deception because Miss Nelson tricks her students into believing something. Is this the same as deception? For example, what if a friend lied to you for your own good? Is it ever okay to not tell the truth or to trick someone? Is a trick the same as lying?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion


The students in Miss Nelson’s class did not respect her.

  1. How did the students act towards Miss Swamp?
  2. What is it to have respect for someone?
  3. How do you know someone deserves respect?
  4. Can you respect yourself?
  5. Does obedience for an elder show respect?
  6. What types of people are usually disrespected?
  7. What actions display respect?
  8. Why did the students respect Miss Swamp and not Miss Nelson?


The children in Miss Nelson’s class feared Miss Swamp.

  1. Did the children respect Miss Swamp because they were afraid of her?
  2. Why did Miss Nelson’s class fear Miss Swamp?
  3. Would you be afraid of Miss Swamp?
  4. Is fear different from respect?
  5. Are you more obedient to someone you fear?
  6. What are we afraid of?
  7. How do you know that someone is afraid?
  8. Can someone be afraid and not show any signs of being afraid?
  9. Is it better to show that you are afraid or not to show that you are afraid?


Miss Nelson has very little power over her students.

  1. Did Miss Nelson lose power over the class because the children did not fear her?
  2. What is it to have power?
  3. Do people need power?
  4. If someone has power, do you need to respect them?
  5. If you have power, does that mean you are respected?
  6. Do we need people to have power?
  7. How do you gain power?
  8. How do you lose power?
  9. How does it feel to be powerless?
  10. How does it feel to be powerful?


Miss Nelson disguises her identity and comes into the classroom as Miss Swamp.

  1. Would you change who you are to gain more acceptance or respect?
  2. Is Miss Nelson still the same person after she changes her identity?
  3. Does someone’s identity define who they are?
  4. What defines a person?
  5. What is your identity?
  6. Is someone the same person if they alter/change their identity?


  1. Does Miss Nelson deceive her class by changing her identity?
  2. Is it okay to lie? What if it’s for a good cause?
  3. Is tricking someone into believing something the same as lying?
  4. How would you feel if your best friend lied to you, but it was for your own good?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Taryn Hargrove. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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