The sweet spot of civility: My story

By Cynthia Clark | 02/16/2010
This is a true story, a work of nonfiction. For that reason, the school and professors described in this story are not identified here, nor are they depicted in my curriculum vitae. They shall forever remain anonymous.

Clark_ID2_embed_SFWWhether you are a nursing student or a faculty member, this narrative will speak to you. It tells of my personal experience with faculty incivility and its painful effects. But, most of all, this is a story about courage, compassion and the power of relationship. It has a happy ending, one that emphasizes the capacity of genuine caring and effective mentoring. As you read my story, pay close attention to its plot, characters, climax and resolution.

Toes in the water
More than three decades have passed since I entered the first day of my nursing program. It was the mid-1970s, a time of turbulence, great change and social awakening. Though the times were confusing, many believed our best days lay ahead. Filled with youthful enthusiasm and a sense of excitement—tempered with a bit of caution—I set out to become a nurse.

Almost immediately, I loved my new life—the learning, the uniforms, my classmates—but, most of all, I loved the thrill of being in the hospital with patients, their families and the hospital staff. I was definitely in my element, but only for a while. It did not take long for one of the nursing faculty (I’ll call her Professor Sour) to show her true nature. She was a negative force, indeed. The students, perhaps especially me, were terrified of her. Many of us became targets of her belittling remarks and bullying behaviors. For some reason, which still escapes me, Professor Sour took a particular dislike to me. At age 18, I was inexperienced and ill-equipped to deal with rude and demeaning teachers—any adult, for that matter. I believed my best defense was to fly under the radar and avoid her.

That was easier said than done, because Professor Sour was a lead instructor for several of my classes, including my clinical experiences. I tried, without much success, to stay on her good side but, inevitably, she would find reasons to berate me, often in full view and within earshot of other students, nurses and physicians—sometimes, even patients.

I kept thinking that, sooner or later, Professor Sour would grow tired of targeting me and move on to someone else but, unfortunately, she seemed to delight in tormenting me: such as the time she called me “stupid” because I didn’t understand a complicated laboratory finding, or the time she told me how much my parents must really dislike me, because they failed to attend a school function. I didn’t waste my breath explaining to her that both of my parents were in the hospital and that my grandmother attended the function in their absence. It would have made little difference, and sharing anything about my personal life with Professor Sour was something I would never do.

My classmates were supportive, but many of them also experienced the wrath of Professor Sour and tried to avoid her. So, I decided to power through the put-downs and try to ignore the disrespectful and rude remarks that seemed to occur daily. That strategy didn’t work. Things only got worse.

The culminating event 
We were doing clinical rotations on the medical floor, and I was one of a small group of nursing students assigned to the unit, under the supervision of Professor Sour. The day started out pretty routine, except that my menstrual period arrived unexpectedly while I was on duty. No big deal, except that I needed to go to the restroom to tend to things. That shouldn’t have caused a problem, but we were not allowed to leave the unit without permission from our nursing instructor, Professor Sour.

Under ordinary circumstances, that would not necessarily cause anxiety or distress, but in this case, I knew it might. History proved that asking to leave the unit for any reason (even a legitimate one such as using the restroom) could trigger a cataclysmic event. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to ask permission to leave the floor. In hindsight, maybe I should have followed my instinct to simply leave the unit without asking permission, in the hope that I could return before I was missed. But I quickly rejected the idea as I considered the potential consequences of such an act. So, instead, I went off to find Professor Sour to get permission to use the restroom.

I found her in the nursing station. It was very busy, filled with several doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. I approached Professor Sour and tried whispering my request so that only she could hear, but she just smiled in a wicked way and demanded in a loud voice, “What do you want?” I tried whispering again, but she repeated, “What do you want?” I responded softly, “Could I please be excused to use the restroom?” I waited for her to grant me permission to leave, but instead she loudly demanded, “And why do you need to use the restroom?”

I was horrified by the question. By now, all eyes were on us; everyone in the nursing station was focused on our exchange. There I stood, filled with the deep humiliation that only a teenager can feel when being publicly chastised and demeaned, especially about such a private and personal matter. Finally, I said, “May I please use the restroom? I have started my period.”

At that point, you could have heard a pin drop. All eyes were now on Professor Sour, waiting for her response. After several long seconds, through pursed lips and in a hushed, angry voice, she said, “Just go!” And so, I went. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I wasn’t the one who suffered the greatest embarrassment that day; it was Professor Sour, who publicly humiliated and shamed a young nursing student who simply asked to use the restroom. It was a defining moment in my professional life, one I have never forgotten.  

The lesson, the blessing and saving Cindy
I seriously considered leaving nursing school and pursuing another profession but, even at the vulnerable age of 18, I had an internal strength—or maybe it was defiance—and I was not going to give up easily. The hostility from Professor Sour became even worse, though she managed to hide her harsh remarks from others. Her incivility was covert and, for a while, her torment seemed to go unnoticed by others. Of course I noticed, and the pain I experienced was profound and intense.

When I dared to share my feelings and experiences with my classmates, they empathized and offered friendship but were loath to get involved since they, too, were being bullied by Professor Sour. It seemed to all of us that nothing could be done to stop her abusive ways. We learned to keep our heads down, stay under the radar and look forward to graduation, when we would be rid of her. None of us considered confronting Professor Sour, nor did we believe that reporting her would prove helpful. So, on we went, tormented by a bully and feeling powerless to do anything about it. But, just when change looked impossible, something magical happened.

One evening, after a particularly challenging day with Professor Sour, I was studying alone in the cafeteria when another member of the nursing faculty approached me. I’ll call her Professor Sweet. I had only been in a couple of Professor Sweet’s classes, but she was always friendly. She was intelligent and always well-prepared. She asked if she could join me, and I said, “Of course.” After a bit of small talk, she asked how I was doing. She seemed genuinely interested, but I had learned long before to keep my thoughts to myself and avoid rocking the boat, especially where Professor Sour was concerned. So, I made some lame comment like, “I’m fine.”

But that response did not satisfy Professor Sweet. She sat patiently, probing me with her intelligent eyes, softly explaining that it was safe for me to speak candidly and from the heart. She urged me to take my time and assured me I could trust her. I promised that I would give serious thought to her offer. Days later, I mustered the courage to approach her.

She was earnest in her attempts to help me. Names and details remained unspoken, and we never spoke specifically about Professor Sour. Instead, we shared our love for nursing, and I told her about my hopes and dreams for the future. In her gentle, persuasive way, Professor Sweet helped rebuild my fractured self-esteem and restored my confidence. She encouraged me to stay in school and pursue my dream of becoming a nurse and a leader for nursing reform.

I hung onto her every word. She mentored me and cultivated a love for nursing that had nearly been destroyed by Professor Sour. As I grew stronger under the healing guidance of Professor Sweet, I realized there were other allies around me, and I reached out to them as well. Slowly, I began to trust again and to heal from the torment heaped upon me by Professor Sour. I believe with all my being that I am a nurse today because of the caring support of Professor Sweet and others like her. The experiences that happened to me so many years ago have largely defined my character and have influenced the nurse—and the person—I am today.

Reflecting on the "sweet spot"
As you read my story, with which character did you resonate most? Was it the vulnerable, young nursing student, whose dreams for the future were nearly destroyed, yet, in the end, triumphed and succeeded? Was it Professor Sour, whose atrocious behavior nearly ended an aspiring nursing career before it could even take flight? Or, did you relate most to the empathetic bystanders, who expressed understanding but stayed silent out of fear and apprehension? Maybe it was Professor Sweet, the type of person whose kindness, courage and caring audacity elevate all of us.

Possibly, you relate in some way to all four characters. Each of us has been vulnerable, and each of us has looked on and avoided conflict. Each of us has, within us, a bit of “sweet” and a bit of “sour.” Regardless of the person or people you relate to most, acknowledge every one of them, and don’t be afraid to look in the mirror. Dig deep, and take bold action to self-reflect and self-examine. Be quietly contemplative, and consider the range of your behaviors and the impact they might have on others.

Whatever you do, don’t run away from the problem and don’t run from yourself. Seek your sweet spot, and be courageous. Reach out to potential allies and mentors, and they will enthusiastically reach back. Take some risks and share your dreams with others. Discover your Professor Sweet and others who are like her. I did and, as a result, I am living and fulfilling a multitude of astonishing dreams. RNL 

Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN, is an award-winning professor in the School of Nursing at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, USA. Clark’s principal body of research is in the area of fostering civility in nursing education and practice. She is a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing, a fellow in the National League for Nursing Academy of Nursing Education, and the recipient of NLN’s 2011 Excellence in Educational Research Award. Clark has conducted numerous empirical studies to better understand issues related to incivility and to develop best practices to foster civility and respect in the nursing profession. Her current research includes the role of nursing education in preparing future nurses to address incivility in the practice setting, faculty-to-faculty incivility, and intervention studies. Her work has stimulated national and international dialogue on these critical issues.

Adapted from "Seeking and Savoring the Sweet Spot of Civility: Cindy’s Story," posted at http://nursing.boisestate.edu/civility/resources-pubs.htm.

Read part two of this series, Why civility matters.
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