Professional Ethics in Advising


March 28, 2016, Vol. 41 No. 4

I find ways to make it obvious to all students that I want them to become better, more virtuous people (in ways consistent with our school’s stated purposes and projected outcomes for our graduates).

— ISM Characteristic of Professional Excellence No. 2

The Professional Characteristic expressed above derives from ISM’s research on school culture, and student performance and satisfaction. It is a distinguishing component of ISM’s approach to faculty growth and renewal. A core principle behind ISM’s guidance to schools, in general, is that their reason-for-being is to benefit students. As one dimension of this student-centered focus, we have endorsed a mission basis for middle and upper school advisory programs and emphasized that the advisor is a professional. We have recently encouraged the adoption of a strengths-based approach to advising. To engage in advising that is thoroughly professional and, in the process, to benefit all the student- and family-serving roles a professional educator plays when fully exhibiting the Professional Characteristic noted (i.e., including encouraging student virtue by being a “virtuous” advisor), we recommend incorporating the consideration of theprofessional ethics of advising into advisors’ professional development. Such a consideration would complement steps you already take to inform all faculty of the legal responsibilities that apply at your school.

Professional Ethics

Communities of educators can (and should) collaborate to create shared understandings about the professional practice of advising that serve institutional mission, align with its values, put benefit to students first, and identify legal or other limits and constraints. The terms “ethics” (rather than “morality”) is conventionally used to apply to members of a particular group’s principled consideration of right or good actions. Service to others without attention to its ethical as well as legal dimensions is not fully “professional.”

The Ethical Advisor

An understandable question may arise: Is the ethics of advising any different from that of teaching (since most advisors are classroom teachers)? Why “the ethical advisor”? Why not just “the ethical teacher”? Certainly some ethical principles apply to all who work with young people. However, the following situations suggest some distinctively advisor-centered ethical considerations:

  • advisor personal experience and feelings—feeling especially positive or negative about an advisee, making assumptions about others’ (advisees’) situations and feelings, offering advice to an advisee, coping with own personal life difficulties, and making personal self-disclosure to advisees;
  • advisors’ dual or multiple roles, which raise questions about the advisor’s duty to advisee and to others (advisees’ teachers, coaches, or parents; school administration), including when the advisee is a child of a faculty colleague and when a classroom teacher is “pressuring” an advisor to get advisee compliance with that teacher’s expectations;
  • a planned advisory group activity that (inadvertently) touches on an advisee’s current emotional vulnerability;
  • the high degree of interpersonal closeness that may develop across a four year advisor-advisee relationship; and
  • in academic advising the advisor’s bias (for or against certain courses or courses of study) or, in a highly departmentalized program, lack of understanding of the full curriculum.

In these or other situations, the professional advisor exercises judgment, most often autonomously, with an intention of doing both practical good (effective advising) and ethical good (principled advising).

Professional Development

The topic of ethics has, of course, a long history in philosophical and religious traditions and is a staple of training and continuing education in other professions. It is not possible to summarize that history here or appropriate to direct schools on what assumptions and specific ethical principles should underlie their approach to this topic. We do, however, suggest four approaches to your consideration of the ethics of advising, each of which may include advisor group discussions in a seminar-like atmosphere as well as some measure of individual advisor reflection.

Hold case conferences. With preliminary understandings about student and family confidentiality, have discussions of current advisee situations with the intention of resolving particular ethical questions and, more broadly (and, arguably, more importantly), of focusing awareness on general advising situations and related ethical questions that other advisors may encounter. Instead of or in addition to actual cases, you may wish to discuss fictional
case studies that present potential ethical problems and raise ethical questions.

Discuss queries and other prompts. Consider and discuss any or all of ISM’s Characteristics of Professional Excellence through the lens of ethics—asking: What is “good” about this characteristic? What does it “look like” when practiced in an intentionally ethical way? What are challenges or potential obstacles to expressing this characteristic ethically?

What does it mean to be a “professional advisor? What are the essential differences between being an advisor and “just” being a teacher or an “amateur” caring adult? How does the matter of ethics distinguish “amateur” from “professional”?

What are the essential qualities of an ethically good advisor? From where do these qualities come? Are they “out there” as something like universals for us to discern, embrace, and aspire to? Or are they “up to us” to generate through the shared beliefs and expectations of our community? What would be the benefits and drawbacks of having an Advisor Code of Ethics? What do’s and don’ts should be explicitly articulated? What advisor virtues do we identify and define as central to professional practice in our school’s advisory program?

As appropriate to your school’s faith-based or secular identity, devote time to prayer or to meditation with a guided focus on student (advisee) well-being and on advisor ethical goodness. “Compassion” may serve as a focal point in this practice.

Draft an advisor(y) code of ethics. You and your colleagues may see potential value in creating an Advisor or Advisory Code of Ethics. A simple internet search will yield various codes of ethics in education and other professions, codes that can serve as models in terms of structure and content. You may find that the processes of making the decision to initiate this kind of project and then the collaborative work performed to create the draft document are the main value derived. Your final document might best be viewed as open to future revision. Most important, in practice, it will be hollow, useless, or even detrimental if the culture of the school does not authentically both support and reflect the code’s content and if attention is not given to shared understandings about responsibilities to enforce it. The code cannot create the culture; the culture must be a vital context for the code. It is recommended that your final draft and plan for publication or other uses be reviewed by school legal counsel.

Host a presentation by, and discussion with, an outside professional. Invite an academician, clergyperson, or member of another profession with expertise in ethics to make a presentation and lead a discussion on this topic. In advance, provide him or her with your program’s mission statement, a definition of advisor roles in both group and one-to-one advising, and, if possible, descriptions of some actual ethical challenges and dilemmas that your advisors have faced. You may wish to give him or her an edited version of the list of situations described above to provide focus on professional ethics.

The potential benefits of advisors’ engaging in these practices include enhanced clarity about professional priorities and responsibilities, renewed focus on program mission, and heightened in-the-moment awareness (mindfulness) in encounters with advisees and their families. It is also likely that this awareness will extend to other professional roles at school (as teacher, as coach, as colleague) and, in general, foster a more contemplative way-of-being at school. While these practices may elicit feelings of caution, at least initially, the longer term benefit can be the reward of advisors’ sense of defined and delimited purpose and the feeling of satisfaction in taking the ethical high road in being of help.


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