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Using Ethics to Resolve Teaching Dilemmas

Group of women in a fitness class

As fitness instructors, 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 classroom, we make decisions; these are based on the nonverbal contract we have with our participants 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, speed, intensity, exercise selection, cues and suggestions. How do our own preferences come into play? Do we make the music louder because the group likes it that way or softer because research indicates we should? If the group says the volume is just right, do we notch it up just a bit to make it more personally motivating? Do we even ask the group’s opinion? Do we encourage participants to “go at their own pace,” then spend the rest of the class encouraging them to “push, push, just eight more”?

These are common examples of decisions preceded by ethical dilemmas. 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 lead class 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 two common dilemmas fitness professionals face.

Dilemma #1

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 first 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 and speed, duration, transitions, instructor personality, participants’ mood or a variety of other factors.

Step 2. Jack Raglin, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University at Bloomington sums up the information-gathering process succinctly: “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 this class? 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. One ethical guide comes from the American Council on Exercise’s (ACE) written Code of Ethics for its certified professionals. The very first principle is “Provide safe and effective instruction.” While this may seem simple, even this edict could be challenging due to ACE’s use of the word and rather than or. For example, having regular participants lift 3-pound weights for 16 counts may be safe, but it may not be particularly effective if the exercisers are hoping to increase strength. And floor push-ups may quite effectively increase upper-body strength, but they may not be safe for a person with carpal tunnel syndrome. Fitness instructors need to be able to decide whether the exercises 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 fitness myths. According to sports psychologist Jim Gavin, PhD, of Concordia University in Montreal, “A situation is only a dilemma if participants are asking for something physically or psychologically unsafe. If they’re asking for things that are not unsafe but don’t produce results, the instructor has the responsibility to inform them of likely outcomes.” A frequently seen example of this is the exerciser who asks for several hundred abdominal crunches “to get flat abs.” In the value system that Dr. Gavin espouses, the ethical choice would be to educate this person about more effective and appropriate ways to achieve that goal.

In some instances, dilemma #1 may be resolved by outside forces. For example, some exercise facilities have policies that override individual wishes on matters like music and movement speed, duration, intensity and other safety issues. When a clear-cut written policy is in place, your approach with participants will be facilitated by having documentation that shows the club’s guidelines and knowing the reasons why they’ve been adopted.

Step 5. When you are deciding on a final course of action, personal values can be used as an overlay. Jim Gavin’s values reflect a service approach to teaching, which he uses to come to a final decision. “The instructor is there to serve, but with consciousness and information. Client motivation is a critical piece, yet the teacher has the choice to say, ‘This is my style and passion.’ ” Gavin believes it is the instructor’s duty to educate the customer while maintaining personal integrity.

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.”

Dilemma #2

How do I retain participant and team collegiality when I am being pressured to teach against my knowledge base?

While you may generally take a conservative approach to class content and adhere to an established knowledge base, other instructors on your own staff may use a faster and more complex approach. Group fitness instructors the world over face the issue of inconsistency with other team members. No simple “one-size-fits-all” answer exists. Again, let’s use the five decision-making steps to expose some of the underlying issues inherent in this dilemma.

Step 1. First, what are the assumptions? Is your worth as an instructor based on popularity? Is popularity measured in your facility by class size or the level of appreciation shown by the dedicated few? Are there really only these two options? Is the pressure you feel external or self-imposed?

Step 2. At this stage you need to obtain information regarding your management’s style and philosophy. Gavin advises, “Find out what your club advocates and why.” Raglin suggests you also share with management any research or other salient information you uncover. “The instructor must be an advocate for safety. Don’t be shy about getting research implemented as policy. Negotiate and be diplomatic.”

You’ll also want to compare the facility’s stated position with your personal experience. For instance, if the director says the club advocates certain speed and complexity guidelines but then gives the prime-time classes to known rule offenders, you—and the participants—are receiving conflicting information. What are the club’s real priorities: income, safety, stars who can draw in members, staff satisfaction? You need a good understanding of your club’s true ability to reconcile stated and actual priorities.

At the Rochester Athletic Club in Minnesota, the aerobics director, Kris Thomas, has a comprehensive hiring process that includes testing applicants on the facility’s mission/philosophy and specific written safety guidelines; teaming candidates with current instructors; educating applicants about being a team player; and explaining the club’s noncompetitive salary guidelines. In this case the club’s preaching and practice are congruent, and instructors faced with dilemma #2 can be sure they’ll be supported by management (unless they’re the ones teaching too fast or with too much complexity!).

If you work in a facility that doesn’t have such a clear-cut value system, you’ll need to follow through with the remaining three steps. This particular dilemma is especially difficult because we tend to invest our self-esteem in this type of situation. “Comparing in terms of popularity can be a trap,” says Gavin. “Do your thing with soul and compassion, and eventually people will follow.”

Step 3. You can sidestep the popularity trap by examining your personal investment with a few tough questions: What outcome am I hoping for? Am I comfortable trying a different style? Am I being pressured to change how I teach or who I am? Is conservative a euphemism for stuck in a rut? Do I want to be a “safety martyr”? How do I define success? If I make a change, am I sacrificing my beliefs? Do I want to be a team player or a club star?

If you can honestly examine your own motives and desires, you will be freer to decide how to resolve dilemma #2 and future ethical quandaries that might threaten you.

Step 4. Now is the time to move on to safety and research issues. According to Raglin, “From an insurance and club policy standpoint, the safe way is the best way.” With that guideline as a foundation, there really are only two main questions remaining: (1) Are you being as safe and effective as you know how to be? (2) Are the faster, more complex instructors safe and effective? When you’ve answered these questions, you can decide what steps, if any, you want to take to further educate yourself or your colleagues and patrons.

Step 5. Confronting this dilemma forces you to prioritize your personal value system. If getting along is on top of your list, you’ll need to find a solution that keeps this value intact. If retaining members is paramount, you’ll have to take another direction. And if injury prevention and conservatism are key, you will choose yet another route.

A Balancing Act

Every instructor decides where the balance lies. The challenge is to arrive at that decision consciously and in a manner true to yourself. Just attempting to come to an ethical decision demonstrates the importance of striving for balance and self-awareness. Or, as Raglin puts it, “How we model our concept of normal, healthy behavior affects our students’ self-perceptions.” If we communicate and care for our members, they will feel empowered and comfortable in our classes.

We can best look after our participants if we communicate with and care for ourselves. As we start the new century with an eye on ethics, we need to ask ourselves questions that make us more conscious of our teaching values. By following our own ethical paths to a place that has meaning for us, we become truly successful and fulfilled instructors.

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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