Thursday, July 28, 2011


I had one of those disconcerting experiences the other day that I have been processing ever since. I was speaking with someone who was commenting on a mutual acquaintance of ours. It wasn't gossip or criticism as much as it was an observation of how this particular individual operates. One of the things this person mentioned to me is that the other individual had a 'list' - a list of people that they absolutely could not stand. I jokingly replied "I sure hope you let me know if I ever get on that list!" There was silence.

I was brought up short. "Really? I'm on the list?" The response was No, I wasn't but the truth was that the other person didn't like me at all. When I asked why, the response was that, according to this individual, I was "confrontational and argumentative."

I admit to being initially surprised, perplexed, curious and, of course, a little hurt. I don't know that many of us want to be on someone else's don't-like list. Of course, as a teacher you have to get used to it -- all sorts of people don't like you on a pretty regular basis and are not afraid of letting you know. But it always gives you a bit of a pause when it's someone who is a peer.

Whenever someone criticizes me, I try to objectively look at what they're saying. So, since this conversation I have spent time reflecting on the comment and evaluating its veracity. Am I those things? Have I shown that behavior in my interactions with this person? The answer is - it depends upon how you view Confrontation.

It's my opinion that the word gets a bad rap. People see or hear it and they immediately perceive it as a negative thing - a conflict full of raised voices, angry comments, and unsurmountable obstacles. But if you really examine the meaning of the word, it doesn't have to mean any of those things.

If you look at a reference source, there are many definitions of the word. The definition that I believe is most helpful and useful is this one: "conflict between ideas, beliefs, or opinions, or between the people who hold them." Personally, I view a confrontation as an opportunity to explore those differing ideas or opinions in order to try to understand the other party and to try to come to a resolution to those differences with which everyone can be satisfied.

I realize my understanding and use of the word comes from my training. In Interpersonal theory, we encourage the idea that burying or ignoring differences is usually less than productive and helpful and that successful and healthy conflict resolution usually requires facing (confronting) the issues that are before you and addressing them openly.

So as I look back over my interactions with this person I have to conclude that this person's definition of "confrontational" and "argumentative" are different than mine. I also, to be very honest, conclude that perhaps this individual needs to grow a thicker skin.

I have had a very limited number of interactions with this individual - I'd be stretching to call it a dozen over the period of a year. The situation in which we most often interact is one where we are representing opposing interests. As such, we often have differing opinions. While I haven't been overly vocal in this setting (as there are many others present who are much more vocal and assertive and, quite frankly, argumentative), I am generally direct in expressing my views while taking care to communicate in ways that are respectful. I don't raise my voice. I don't use sarcasm. I don't snip. I don't roll my eyes. I don't use the 'heavy sigh.' I use phrases such as "I see your point and I'd like to share a different perspective," or "tell me more about this," or "can you give me a specific example of what you mean" or "I understand your position and I don't agree" or even "I don't think we're as far apart in our positions as you might think."

If that behavior is 'confrontational and argumentative' then I guess I am guilty.

People differ. We have different interests, opinions, thoughts, skills. I find those differences to be interesting. While they can sometimes be frustrating, more often I believe those differences are what create new ideas, new approaches and new possibilities. If we are willing to talk openly about them, and thoughtfully and open-mindedly consider the opposing viewpoint, I believe those differences can move us forward and result in positive change

I suspect that maybe this individual might be one of those who defines and categorizes anyone who holds an opposing opinion, and is willing to express it, as confrontational and argumentative. Personally, I don't find this approach particularly helpful or - quite honestly - particularly professional or adult. But for now, I guess I'll have to be content to be on someone's list.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


The first time I was called "fat" was when I was 8 years old. It was in school and our gym class was going through a height and weight check. The gym teacher said our measurements aloud as she marked them in her book. I remember her words clearly - 46 inches, 62 pounds. The girl who was directly ahead of me spoke clearly and convincingly - "62? You're fat!"

If you look at height/weight charts, 58 pounds is average for an 8 year old child.
So, yes, I was 4 pounds above the average but I probably wasn't fat. But that's all it took. That's when the scale entered my life.

I've mentioned before that I grew up in a poor family. I don't say that for effect - it's simply truth. My mother did wonders with her food budget and we went without in many areas for her to put meat and potatoes and bread on the table. Those were my father's favorites and she did what she could to supply them. I don't remember many suppers where those three things were not on the table. Not eating was not an option. You didn't turn your nose up at food.

As time went on, my self-consciousness grew. As I look back at pictures from my childhood, it appears that the weight started coming on in junior high. I judged myself as fat. I compared myself to thin friends and classmates and always saw myself as too big. Of course, I didn't compare myself to those who were heavier than I - I just didn't see them even though they were there. The slow creep of weight continued into high school and then college.

I played racquetball in college - during my Freshman and Sophomore years - up to three times a day but let that slide when I got involved in theatre and competitive speech. But when I moved to Minneapolis and took a full-time job here, I decided that it was time to grow up and really make a conscious effort to be healthy. I started exercising every day and making healthy eating choices.

My weight, however, continued its upward creep. My size 12 went to a size 14 and then to a 16. Doctors said 'eat less - exercise more.' So I did. I ate less and less and less. I exercised more and more and more. No change. I ate carrots and fruit and fish. I cut out bread and potatoes and sweets. No change. I swam 40 laps a day in an Olympic size pool. No change. I started every morning with a 4 mile walk, then later in the day did 45 minutes of cardio on the elliptical machine and did a circuit on the nautilus equipment. No change.

Last year, my new chiropractor asked me to keep a food diary. I did. I was diligent. I wrote down everything I ate - and I do mean everything. If I ate a grape from the bowl on the counter, it went on my list. If I took a yogurt raisin from the bowl in the break room at the office, I wrote it down. When he examined my three week diary, he questioned me - "Did you write everything down?" "Everything" I said honestly. His response - "You don't eat very much." That's what I've been trying to tell people.

I will be honest with you all -- I got tired of the fight. I got tired of people in restaurants looking at me with disdain if I ate food. I got tired of people, sometimes total strangers, commenting on my weight. I got tired of doctors and nurses reacting with surprise when they see that my blood pressure is a relatively consistent 110/60. I got tired of my friend saying to me "If I exercised as much as you do, I'd be a pencil."

I'm not a pencil. I will never be a size 6. And, finally I decided that I am who I am and I am happy with who I am. I am healthy. My blood pressure levels are excellent. My cholesterol levels are within normal standards. I exercise daily. I eat fresh fruits and vegetable and lean proteins. I am no longer listening to doctors tell me that I need to eat less and exercise more.

When I relayed this decision to my accupuncturist, she applauded me. Then, because she's been treating me for several years now and has agreed with me that my lifestyle and my weight just aren't in sync, she referred me to a doctor. Because I trust her, I went to see this doctor. Who did some tests. Who discovered that I have a thyroid condition. And I have had. For years.

What are the symptoms of this thyroid condition? "Difficulty losing weight. Fatigue. Abnormal menstrual cycles. Cold intolerance. Muscle aches. Dry skin." I think my friends and family will recognize me in the description. Years worth of these symptoms. What's the answer? Eat less and exercise more? No. The answer, apparently, is medication.

So I haven't really changed my exercise habits or my eating habits. I still swim and walk. I still eat fruits and veggies. I still go out for happy hour with a friend now and then and I still have the occasional pizza or ice cream. And I now take one little pill every morning. And, as of today, I'm down 30 pounds.

If that weight stays off - great. Dropping a few pants sizes is never a bad thing. If the weight comes back - well, I guess that's fine too. I am who I am, and I've decided that every pound of it is good.

Today's image:

Saturday, July 9, 2011


"The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself."
- Jane Addams

As a teacher, I suspect that I might see this tendency a bit more than others in many professions, even though in conversation I hear that others have begun to notice this tendency becoming more and more common as well. "I am an exception."

The expectation that I give an exception comes to me certainly weekly but within the past year, it seems to be, almost daily. Sometimes it comes in the form of a demand, sometimes a request, and sometimes a plea. Most times it is accompanied by a complex, often deeply dramatic, story as to why this situation warrants an exception for this particular person.

The exception is requested for any number of things -- a due date, an alternative assignment, extra time, extra credit, or even a complete rewrite and resubmission. The most recent request for an exception came this morning. It was for the actual grade for the course. A student sent an email asking that I 'give him' a higher grade in the class. That's right. He thinks I should give him a higher grade than the one that he earned. He did not come to talk to me in person. He sent his request via email and from the tone of the note, seems to think he is quite justified in asking this. It certainly seems he sees nothing wrong in his request.

This, of course, is not the first time I have received this particular request. It happens most semesters, sometimes I even receive multiple requests. And even though this is nothing new, I'm always surprised when it comes. Think about it. These students are asking me to lie and cheat on their behalf. I'm not their classmate or their BFF. I'm not their sibling or their parent. I'm their teacher and they are asking me to lie and cheat. It astounds me.

During the first session of every one of my classes, I take care to
clearly explain the grading system for the course. Unlike some instructors I had when I was in college, I do not make my students guess about grades. I spell it out. In my course, you do not start the semester with an A and then lose points from there. You start with zero. Zero points. Everyone starts at the same place. Everyone has the opportunity to earn the same number of points. I don't give extra credit.

The majority of the grade, as much as I can possibly make it, is based on objective points. Approximately 1/3 of the points are earned through quizzes. Questions are multiple choice and true-false. There is a right answer. And, I give a study guide indicating to students the topics that will be on each quiz.

Approximately 1/3 of the points are earned through in-class exercises and activities. The majority of those points are also objective - matching exercises, identification exercises, application and analysis - where there are X number of questions with an equivalent number of answers. Again, there is a right answer.

The remaining 1/3 of the points are earned through a group presentation and an individual paper. For these points, students are given detailed assignment sheets that clearly articulate every requirement and also clearly articulate the criteria that will be used in evaluation. While there is, admittedly, some subjectivity in evaluating this kind of work, I have earnestly attempted to make the evaluation procedure as objective as possible. And, given that 2/3 of the course grade is based upon objective work, it seems that even if I were biased in some way it couldn't be enough to really damage a student's grade.

So, the criteria are spelled out. The points are there to earn. I provide the appropriate supplemental material to the textbook. I advise students on ways to study. I give hints on test taking. I willingly read rough drafts of papers before the due date. But once the time comes, students earn points. They earn what they earn. I can't give them more points if I like them particularly well. I can't take away points if I dislike them. They earn points.

I'm not sure when this "I am exceptional" attitude gained so much ground. I suspect it might have started when we stopped keeping score in T-ball and started giving a medal to everyone for 'participation.' No matter where it started, it seems that it is here to stay.

Maybe you are exceptional. Maybe you do deserve special treatment. Maybe I don't really understand how truly unique and deserving of deference you are. And, if in all your 'exceptionalness' you need to cheat and lie to make it through life - that's your decision and needs to be on your conscience. Don't ask me to do it for you.