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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #6 Confidentiality

June 7, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The sixth area on STLHE’s list is: Confidentiality.

Confidentiality around student grades, records and communications speaks to student respect and to the type of relationship you wish to have with your students. The STLHE compares the confidentiality between teachers and students to the doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationship but those are legally mandated; confidentiality in the teacher-student relationship is premised on respect.

The STLHE gives examples of breaches of confidentiality:

providing student academic records to a potential employer, researcher, or private investigator; discussing a student’s grades or academic problems with another faculty member; and using privately communicated student experiences as teaching or research materials.

How much information do you share with colleagues about mutual students? Do you vent at staff parties about particular students? I remember being party to a conversation (as a student) between two faculty members who were upset with another student’s actions; I shouldn’t have been there to hear that and should that discussion have even taken place?

There are no easy lines and, often, there are reasons we feel that justify breaches of confidentiality. In legal and medical relationships, often abuse or potential violence negates confidentiality. The STLHE states that “if there are reasonble grounds for believing that releasing such information will be beneficial to the student”, this trumps confidentiality. This blurs the lines even further.

There’s a show on television, Private Practice, about a group of doctors who flout the rules around confidentiality, sharing many of their cases and problems and fighting off legal challenges that try to stop them – all for the good of the patients they serve. It appeals to our sense of justice, of doing what’s best for the patient and the greater good, of breaking rules that seem designed to inhibit good practice rather than protect.

But the problem with the show, and with trying to decide when it is in the benefit of the student to break confidentiality,  is that it comes down to our sense of justice or what is best for the student. Our own lenses, judgements and ethics dictate what is best for someone else. This sort of ‘helping imperative’ is fraught with problems – what you think is best is not always what someone else might think is best. In this way, we privilege the way we think at the expense of how others think. How can you decide what’s best for your students? You can’t. Parents get to decide for their children, especially at an early age, what is best for them. That is not the type of relationship you should have with your students.

I think the answer to many issues around confidentiality lies in “student consent”. Be open with your students about what your policies are around confidentiality. If you want to pass on records, ask advice about an issue from a colleague, use a student’s words or stories in your own teaching or research – ask for student consent. It may seem onerous but it demonstrates your respect for your students and respect for their ability to decide. It shows respect for their intellectual property and creativity in your classes when you ask to use their words. When you need to ask to discuss an issue with a colleague, it shows respect for the problem as well as that you don’t always have all the answers.

Be open, honest and don’t assume that because you are the instructor you know what’s in the best interest of your students.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 4: Student Development

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students


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