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Thinking of Ethics: Competent Teaching

Ed Etzel & Jack Watson  

An old Milton Berle joke goes something like this: A college teacher was asked to fill out a questionnaire by the state. One question said: “What are three reasons you decided to enter higher education?” The teacher wrote, “June, July and August.” Hopefully, those of us who teach, have a few better reasons than these three to justify our life’s work (although they aren’t really bad reasons when the end of May comes around!). Perhaps some hidden messages in the above tale are that teaching is quite demanding and takes it’s toll on those who strive to do so effectively.

Among the many challenges of AASP members who serve as educators, one is to perform one’s job(s) in a skillful, ethical manner. Doing a good job of these is not as easy as it may seem. Indeed, teaching an ever-changing body of knowledge, often done under considerable pressure to teach more students, and to produce outside the classroom with fewer resources, is a complex task. Unfortunately, despite all that has been researched, written, and discussed, there is not a cookbook of effective teaching or a roadmap for the ethical practice of this aspect of our profession.

What does our ethics code say about teaching? How much guidance does it really provide to members who work as teachers? If you click on our new and improved web site (AASP, 1996), locate and search that document, you will probably say that the answers to both of the above questions are simply -- not much! In fact, there is no specific section devoted to teaching. However, among the few relevant paragraphs of the Principles of our code, (which is based for the most part on the on replaced 1992 version of the American Psychological Association’s ethics code (APA, 1992)), you will find references to teaching such as: 1) AASP members respect the central importance of freedom of inquiry and expression in research, teaching, and consulting; 2) AASP members maintain the highest standards of competence in their work; 3) They recognize the boundaries of their professional competencies and the limitations of their expertise; 4) They provide only those services and use only those techniques for which they are qualified by education, training, or experience; and 5) AASP members are cognizant of the fact that the competencies required in serving, teaching, and/or studying groups of people vary with the distinctive characteristics of those groups. 

In the AASP code’s General Ethical Standards one can also find relevant references to teaching in the second standard (AASP, 1996):

2) Boundaries of Competence: AASP members trained in the sport sciences must be aware of their limitations in clinical and counseling psychology. Individuals from different training backgrounds must deliver services, teach, and conduct research only within the boundaries of their competence.

(b) AASP members provide services, teach, or conduct research in new areas only after taking the necessary actions to guarantee a high level of competence in those areas.

(c) AASP members who engage in assessment, therapy, teaching, research, organizational consulting, or other professional activities maintain a reasonable level of awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity, and undertake ongoing efforts to maintain competence in the skills they use.

What emerges most from these sections of our code is that teaching consistently links to the issue of competence. Indeed, competence is one of the most important aspects of the code dealing with all areas of ones professional life. Although the adage, “Those who can’t teach” may have some validity (and a little bit of embedded humor), competence is crucial to effective and ethical instruction. What does one have to do to function as a competent and ethical teacher and remain so over time?

First, it would seem necessary to have sufficient, high quality education, training and supervision in: 1) how to teach, and in 2) one’s claimed area(s) of expertise. For the most part, these do not seem to be a problem for teachers; these days new teaching professionals typically come equipped with a reasonable amount of teaching experience at the graduate level and a solid base of knowledge to pass on to others. However, the above can be areas of concern early in one’s teaching career, especially when starting out in academia and when “thrown into” teaching a new course on a new topic. New hires (e.g., assistant professors) and graduate teaching assistants appear to be most likely to be asked to do this.

What is the ethical course to take in these situations? Should you say “no I can’t do this” early on? This is a tough one, and one that could potentially put a person into professional hot water. At minimum, it is recommended that when confronted with such dilemmas, begin preparations quickly and do a great deal of additional reading on top of what the students in their courses are asked to do. People so challenged are also encouraged to find an experienced supervisor/mentor with whom they can discuss content they do not understand well or when they would just like to “bounce” teaching ideas off of others.

How does one maintain competence in the subjects taught? It has been said that your doctoral education is worth very little after about ten years. AASP members who engage in assessment, therapy, teaching, research, organizational consulting, or other professional activities mustmaintain a reasonable level of awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity, and undertake ongoing efforts to maintain competence in the skills they use. Therefore, the code encourages teachers to  maintain professional involvements in the areas in which they teach and (as best they can) continue to keep up with the related literature in these areas.

An additional area of concern also associated with the provision of quality instruction over time is the notion of being well prepared for class. Once one has taught a class several times, or gets caught up in additional deadlines/work, it sometimes becomes easy to stop updating course materials, (i.e., the old yellow notes and worn overhead transparencies), or to not spend enough time preparing for class. Each of these issues is an ethical concern for the teacher, which likely has been faced by a large percentage of teachers in our field and elsewhere. If we are committed to staying current within our field, then updating materials should not take a great deal of time. In all likelihood, lessons will take less formal preparation time once you are comfortable with the core material. 

No matter how much or little experience you have, or at what level you teach, whenever possible, it also seems to be a good idea to ask colleagues to observe your teaching and review your materials to help provide you with feedback about your teaching style and the materials used in your classes. While this might not be the most comfortable thing to engage in, it can be quite useful. We all believe that we are pretty good drivers, but we can always be better. The same is true for our teaching.

Effective teaching requires considerable knowledge and skill. To be a competent, ethical teaching over time takes consistent attention, effort and refinement. Regularly check your competence in this demanding role; when you think need some help to work competently, seek assistance. Remember the old adage: “When in doubt, \'consult.\'” This is a wise practice even during the months of June, July and August.


American Psychological Association (1992). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 47, 1597-1611.

Association for Applied Sport Psychology. (1996). Ethics Code. Retrieved January, 25, 2005 from ETHICS CODE: AASP Ethical Principles and Standards