Integrity in inspiring teachers

(Part three of my series on looking for integrity in teachers, coaches, and other “inspirational authorities“.)

I’ve been moving in a lot of different contexts that involve the body and intense learning experiences – in other words intense experience of transformation and dealing with personal dreams. And in almost all of these contexts, this subject has appeared:

How to deal with teachers who hurt others using their position of power? How to treat leaders who get others to kind of voluntarily but not really be exploited – be that financially, sexually or just for power?

Places like the theater, dance festivals, and workshops, international youth work, personal development… These places have in common that the people go there with a dream. A dream to change something in the world or in themselves for the better. While the content may differ, they want to go beyond what they experience right now and do so in strong connection with other people. Learning by doing. Learning by being inspired by other people’s stories or by being in some way touched by an inspiring leader who has achieved something they long for.

These inspiring, charming leaders collect or focus the energy of two or more people to create a transformational experience in some way. This gives them great power and at the same time a great responsibility.

I think leadership (whether that is in being a teacher, a therapist, a theatre-director or a politician) is helpful to channel or focus the energy and attention of the people involved. Creating focus can be facilitated and having a clear way of distributing responsibility among those gathering around an idea very often makes it more powerful.

When paired with integrity and the willingness to continue learning and integrating the impulses of the members of the tribe (or simply the individual they’re working with), I think it is amazing that someone would take responsibility and become a leader for a purpose.

I have met amazing leaders and teachers, who have inspired me in so many ways through their example of humble and honest learning.

But I have also met the other kind. Those who ignore the fact that they can still fail, that they are profiting from people’s fears and that there is an asymmetry of power in the different roles that influences the relationship. And they ignore that they’re acting within a culture that influences how many people act habitually if no new, empowered culture is established. Those who use another person’s dream to access their energy for a project that they envision.
At times, I would even give them the ‘credit’ of not doing it intentionally, the first time around… But it would still be painful for those whose dream or wish is being drained for energy. (And latest when things repeat, it’s time to pay attention…)

 

In the past years, I have heard stories or received warnings about specific teachers (in embodiment practices, in dance, in other self-development techniques,…), who have behaved unethically in different ways.

And I have met amazing, ethical and empathic teachers who hold back their own teaching out of fear to turn into an ‘exploiter’.

As a client of embodiment practices I remember lying on the working table, my hands falling outside the frame of the table and when my practitioner passed, occasionally their legs would slightly brush against my hand. I was extremely aware what kind of touch that was – and which part of their lower body actually touched me. I checked all the time, whether they were pretending to just ‘happen to touch me’ with their crotch, or if that really was something that just happened. I was ready to leave as soon as their touch feels inappropriate.

This cautiousness came from another context and I have not experienced inappropriate sexual advances of practitioners personally, but my fear was keeping me alert and at times made it difficult for me to relax.

 

When I started to train as a practitioner, I was very self-conscious not only about touch but also about where the gaze of my eyes went, when I was next to a client with their eyes closed. When I had to stand in a way that I couldn’t avoid looking at my client’s crotch – like standing by their feet or walking around the table with a focus on the middle of the body… During class, I was afraid that a colleague would see that my eyes went that way and that they would accuse me of abusing the trust of this person lying on the table by looking at their genitals without consent.

 

I’m not so afraid of this anymore today. I have my intention clear, I know I don’t mean to make unwanted advances or work without consent. I still know, however, that for a client something I do might be perceived differently than I intended out of their own history or misunderstandings. Or because I was inattentive. That can be about touch, but also about something I say or don’t say. However, I know also that I am willing and able to talk with that person and figure out how we deal with the situation together.

 

I know that in a position of authority and power, I’m not infallible. I’m human. I’m still struggling with shame or pain, misjudgment or just blindsidedness. No matter how experienced I would become in a field, I cannot know exactly how anything would be for someone else. (Listen to Amy Matthews on teaching personal agency – she brings it to the point.)

 

The challenge I see with ‘warnings or non-ethical teachers’ is that we can only warn of those we know… and as long as people are still afraid, we might not find out about someone’s manipulative behavior until a large group of people has already experienced it first-hand.

Meanwhile, we lose the power of those inspiring leaders who preventively hold back, because they’re afraid they can’t trust their own integrity, once they become more powerful (comparing themselves to examples they have met).

A friend of mine recently said that “power doesn’t corrupt. Power shows where corruption was in the first place.” To which another one responded, „Yes, power is like a blender with the lid off – whatever you put in there it spreads around everywhere.”

I keep wondering how we can create a culture where we are more aware of what is in the blender. Can we empower our students, clients, colleagues to keep their critical thinking alive, at any point? Even (or especially) when they’re listening to an inspiring, charming and impressive teacher who they respect? Can we encourage them to speak up when something seems off, instead of warning others of specific individuals (which also can easily backfire because it, too, can hurt innocent individuals)? Can we create a culture that supports critical thinking and the knowledge that we can decide what we do and what we don’t want to learn from someone – also in transformational, personal development?

 

Can we find ways to support the visibility of teachers working with an ethical approach, who commit to receiving feedback, intervision, supervision of some sort and continue learning? Those who truly practice empowering their students and clients? Can we find a way to counterbalance the ‘exploiting industry’ by supporting the teachers with integrity to grow and become stronger?

 

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