on learning and leading

sit a little closer

Antoine de Saint-Exumpéry’s Le Petit Prince tells the story of a pilot stranded in the desert who comes upon a young prince visiting earth from his asteroid home. Although at first glance this relatively short novella seems a simple child’s tale, much deeper meaning lies beneath the surface. Much of the depth to the story is found in the relationship between the little prince and a fox he meets on his journey.

At one point in the story, the fox tells the prince that he cannot play with him because he is not tame. Confused, the prince asks the fox what it means to “tame” someone.

In response, the fox says this: “You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”

About once a month, I have the chance to spend some time with our first-year teachers in professional learning designed just for them. We tackle the challenges of teaching and celebrate the victories along the way. These sessions are raw and refreshing and wonderful in every way, because there is something truly magical about spending time with first-year teachers.

Today, we spent sometime unpacking the fox’s words: “Sit a little closer to me, every day…” (We did so with the help of Carol Ann Tomlison’s article “Fox Taming and Teaching,” which any educator friends reading this post should check out.)

“Sit a little closer to me, every day…”

What does it look like to sit a little closer, every day? A little closer to a student we’re struggling to reach? To a colleague who is distant and unhappy? To a parent who has lost trust in our system?

During standardized testing one year, a student decided he was not terribly interested in bubbling in answers on a test he did not want to take. Instead, he slipped down under a table and refused to come out. We tried several strategies to get him out (bribing, threatening, begging — you know, the usual gambit), but nothing worked. In the end, we were able to help him out by sitting down on the floor and slowly sliding closer, inch-by-inch, until he was ready for company in his under-the-table home. It was not a dramatic moment that got him out; it was an intentionally slow process that worked.

So many times, we look for a quick fix to a relationship that is out of sync. We try to forge a connection forcefully and instantly by saying the exact right words at the exact right moment. But often “words are the source of misunderstandings,” aren’t they? Our well-intended attempts at taming those around us lead to conflict and unintended pressure.

So let’s sit just a little bit closer every day – moving slowly and carefully, building connection and earning trust.

After all, in the end, the little prince does tame the fox. And it is only then that he understands the significance of the relationship they have built.

“But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

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