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Using Ethics to Resolve Teaching Dilemmas

Jul 18, 2007

As wellness professionals, we are aware of the impact we have on others. Whether we intend it or not, our actions and words influence those with whom we teach and work. Every time we step into the studio, we make decisions; these are based on the nonverbal contract we have with our participants and clients that we will do our best to safely and competently guide them toward their goals in exchange for their trust, time and effort.

One way our value system becomes evident in the classroom is through the choices we make about volume, intensity, exercise/pose selection, cues and suggestions. How do our own preferences come into play? Do we even ask the group’s opinion? What is best for my participants? What is best for me? Who gets to decide? Who knows better what my participants need—they or I? Every time we teach we are called on to answer these and lots of other questions. For many instructors, this decision-making process has become reflexive; we don’t consciously consider each question in class. We couldn’t function effectively if we had to ponder the ethics of teaching every time we worked with a group. But if we want to be ethical teachers, we must at least be aware of our choices—and know how we arrived at them.

Decision-Making Road Map
Looking at some of the simpler decisions we have reached in the past can help guide us as we contemplate some of the more difficult, yet common, teaching dilemmas that occur at least once in our careers. Some of us will use previous decision making as a road map for future dilemmas. Others may decide to go back to a fork and choose a new route altogether. There is no universal answer, no overall “correct” choice for some of the decisions we must make. But for each instructor in a particular situation, there is a right and appropriate choice.

To better understand how we make ethical decisions, let's assess the five general steps involved in the decision-making process:

Step 1. Watch for Assumptions. This initial step requires that you consider those beliefs that affect your expectations of events or other people’s behavior.
Step 2. Gather Information. At this point, the goal is to collect salient data that can help you make an informed decision.
Step 3. Check for Personal Investments. Here’s where you need to question what you have at stake in the dilemma, including potential losses or gains.
Step 4. Follow Industry Safety and Research Indicators. This step is less internal and may outweigh previous steps if the relevant data are compelling.
Step 5. Come to a Decision That Reflects Your Personal Values. This final step is the culmination of considering the internal and external factors; it allows you to make an informed choice that is congruent with who you are as an instructor and a citizen of a specific culture.

Now let’s apply these five steps to a common dilemma you might face. How do I resolve the conflict between what participants want and what I think they really need? Oftentimes, participants want either more or less than what’s being offered. This dilemma potentially pits you against the very people you are in class to help.

Step 1. To be aware of your assumptions, you need to understand what the terms  “more” and “less,” “easy” and “hard,” etc. mean to those people who want a change. It’s not uncommon for misunderstandings to occur at this initial stage if you assume that everyone defines certain terms in the same way. For example, “easy” and “hard” could apply to complexity, intensity, music volume, duration, transitions, instructor personality, participants’ mood or a variety of other factors.

Step 2. Query your participants about their goals or aspirations. Knowing whether goals are in conflict is not possible without knowing the goals. In short, ask questions!

Step 3. Once you’ve got a clearer understanding of what participants are really asking of you, you have to focus inward to determine how much you are personally invested in the outcome. This is the time to ask yourself questions like these: Do I have an outlook that requires a right and a wrong? If I give them what they say they want, will I still enjoy teaching? How much time and effort will I have to expend to make any changes? Am I comfortable with change and conflict? Do I need to win or save face? Are participants collaborators or recipients? Is there a management philosophy to take into account? If I know it, do I agree with it? What’s my level of training and knowledge relative to the request? What knowledge do I have that contributes to my belief that I know what they need? This self-questioning should clarify the variables and help avert conflicts.

Step 4. Now that you’ve queried the participants and examined yourself, it’s time to balance the information you’ve gathered with your knowledge of relevant research. You need to be able to decide whether the moves participants request are safe and effective. If a change being requested could cause injury, you may be justified in overriding your participants’ wishes. In fact, resolving such an issue may present an opportunity to share information and clear up common myths.

Step 5. When you are deciding on a final course of action, personal values can be used as an overlay. In the end, you must come to a conclusion you can live with, one that fits your concept of who you are and what you believe in. There’s no exact place to point to on an ethics chart that says, “Here is the correct answer.” Rather, you need to increase your awareness of the steps that lead you to a choice and act from that awareness. Then, at least, you can say, “Here is the perfect balance for me at this moment in this case.”

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