Teaching the Teachers

I inadvertently insulted a massage school owner yesterday by making a FB post saying that I wasn’t impressed by a school that had only one teacher to teach the entire curriculum, and that I wouldn’t choose such a school, personally. To begin with, I wasn’t speaking of his school when I made the post, and I had no idea that he was teaching his entire program himself, as his website gives a different impression, listing four faculty members. A couple of his satisfied graduates weighed in with the fact that they were pleased with their education, and many more who didn’t attend that particular school offered comments about the need for diversity and differing perspectives. Some said they’d rather have one good teacher than a bunch of bad ones. I’m going to stick to my guns on that one, and it is just my opinion and mine alone, that it wouldn’t be for me.

There’s no law anywhere that I’m aware of that prohibits one person teaching the whole program. The standards for massage therapy education vary from state to state. The quality of massage therapy education varies from school to school, and even from teacher to teacher. I also stated in my post that I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are brilliant and engaging teachers; there are teachers who know their subject but who are so droll and boring you can’t bear to sit through it; and the sad fact is that there are plenty of people teaching who shouldn’t be teaching at all. A good massage therapist and one who is good at teaching are two different things, many times.

Some states allow anyone who’s breathing to teach a class, and schools often take advantage of that by using last year’s graduates as this year’s teachers. At the other extreme are states with requirements that you must have a college degree in the area you are teaching, at least for science-based classes like A&P, or that you have been licensed as an MT for X number of years before you can teach hands-on classes.  There’s no consistency.

I’m at the end of my five years of service on the North Carolina Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy, and I have served the School Approval Committee that entire time. Since I’ve been on the inside, I can state that our system isn’t perfect…we state in our rules that teachers should be “trained” but we don’t go far enough with that…there’s no set number of hours of training required, and each school basically does whatever they please on that front. One has a year-long training program. Another has a two-hour orientation and calls it their training program. The others fall somewhere in between. My pet project recently has been encouraging schools to teach research literacy to their students. It seems to be slow to catch on. Some school owners have the attitude that if something isn’t in their board’s requirements, they’re simply not going to do it, and that’s a shame.

So who teaches the teachers? The AFMTE is working on a big project, the National Teacher Education Standards Project. I applaud that wholeheartedly, but I will point out that the AFMTE isn’t a regulatory board and all they can do is put it out there, they can’t force anyone to participate. The Massage Therapy Foundation is offering classes around the country in teaching research literacy, but the same is true of them; since they’re not a regulatory board, they can’t force participation. That’s just too bad on both counts! I’d personally like to see teaching research literacy a requirement in every school. Both of these organizations are saying, “Here we are, here’s what we can do to improve education.” But again, since there’s no law requiring it, some–and by some I mean the vast majority–aren’t getting on the bandwagon. What I fail to understand is why any school owner or program director wouldn’t want to give their school–and their students–their best shot.

While I do concede that there’s a complainer in every crowd, when I see the same complaint from multiple students/graduates, it gets my attention. There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t get emails or phone calls from students all over the country with some tale of woe about their school experience.

On last weeks’ blog, Self-Sabotage–or How I Got Your Clients, I offered up a bunch of the reasons that clients have given me about why they left another therapist and started coming to me. So here are some of the comments that I have received from students:

“Even though it’s in our school catalog that we have a dress code, our teachers don’t follow it themselves. They dress in the same way we’re told not to.”

“There’s no substitute. If a teacher has to be out the class just gets canceled.”

“The teacher is rude if anyone questions anything. Her answer is usually because I say so. I don’t think she knows the real answers.”

“Our teacher didn’t like teaching Ethics, so at every so-called Ethics class, they would just spend the whole hour talking about something else.”

“Our teacher doesn’t know anything about the licensing laws in our state.”

“Our teachers are always contradicting each other and you don’t know who to believe.”

“The A&P teacher couldn’t pronounce the anatomy terms.”

“Our teacher lets us out early all the time because she has somewhere to go. I don’t think I’m getting what I’m paying for.”

“My teacher has had affairs with several students.”

“My teacher’s girlfriend is in the class and he uses her for every massage demo.”

“All of our tests are open-book. I don’t feel like there’s any proof that we’ve learned anything.”

“My teacher tries to impose his religious beliefs on us.”

“My school told me it wasn’t going to be a problem that I had a criminal record but after I graduated I found out I couldn’t get a license.”

“The teacher just graduated last  year and in spite of the fact that she has failed the exam three times and doesn’t have a license, the owner feels sorry for her and is letting her teach.”

“There’s no diversity. One teacher teaches everything.”

“One of the female teachers gives every male student a hard time and picks on them constantly.”

“When I complained to the owner about the unprofessional behavior of one of the teachers, she told me I was free to drop out but I wouldn’t be getting my money back. She didn’t even listen to the complaint.”

“My school experience has been very disappointing but I’ve already paid the money and I’m just trying to stick it out until graduation.”

I honestly could go on for days with the comments. And like I said, when it’s just one whiner, I don’t pay much attention, but when I hear the same thing repeatedly about a school, I encourage those students to report it to the board. If our board gets a half-dozen complaints about the same school or the same teacher, you can bet we’re going to investigate it. I sometimes get emails from students who say they are afraid of retaliation if they complain, and that’s too bad. It just means that whatever problems are there will be perpetuated for the next class of students.

As a school owner or program director, your priority should be to get the best people you can get to teach your students, and to ensure that they are not only familiar with the subject, but that they are trained in teaching adult learners, that they incorporate research references into their class, that they are trained in teaching to diverse learning styles, and that they present themselves and behave themselves in a professional manner. If you allow your teachers to come to class looking like a homeless person, then the blame is on you as much as it is the teacher. If you look the other way while your teachers are having affairs with students, the blame is on you as much as it is the teacher. If you don’t listen with an open mind whenever a student has a complaint about an instructor, shame on you. If you’ve heard the same complaint more than once and haven’t discussed it with the instructor, double shame on you.

If you really want the education that you’re offering to be the best that it can be, you’ve got to teach your teachers. Don’t just hire someone and hand them a syllabus and think they’re going to do a good job. There are resources available and you should be using them.  If you’re not conducting a thorough teacher training program, or requiring your instructors to attend one, or not having teachers trained in research literacy and teaching that to students just because it isn’t a state law, then I urge you to step up to the plate and go beyond what the state law requires. Your school will benefit from it. Your students will benefit from it. The massage-seeking public will benefit from it.


ABMP Massage School Instructor Resources

Alliance for Massage Therapy Education

AMTA School Advantage Newsletters

Center for Somatic Teacher Education

Education Training Solutions

Resource ETC

Teaching and Presentation Skills Series

Teaching Research Literacy from the Massage Therapy Foundation

17 Replies to “Teaching the Teachers”

  1. So true, some people shouldn’t be teaching massage. Even with the higher education standards in my state and the even higher education standards in my school, students still get short-changed with instructors’ chronic lateness, abuse, personality disorders, and a lot of the other issues among your students’ complaints. Some people look good on paper and come off great in job interviews but then when their true selves come out on the job, it’s impossible to unload them for various reasons.

  2. Great post,Laura. This really hit home with me. I just left a school where I have taught for the past two years. When I started, I was just thrown right in. I had to make my own syllabus while following set course objectives. And no one ever checked my syllabus. Lucky for them, I did my own research into Massage education and teaching adult learners. There definitely needs to be standards set for schools and massage instructors. Since I had a crash course in massage education, I am now passionate about seeing change.

  3. Laura,

    First let me express my appreciation for the service you provided to the citizens of the State of North Carolina during your term on the Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy. I know you won’t miss those long drives from your home in the mountains down to Raleigh for meetings! Serving on a state regulatory board is one of the toughest and most important volunteer jobs in our field, as it requires a discerning mind as well as a clear understanding of the laws and rules. Thank you for working diligently to uphold the standards during your time on the BMBT.

    On the topic of this blog post: Thank you for your frank and accurate assessment of the general status of teaching in the massage therapy field. It’s a troubling picture, and it’s good for this to be called out. While some our stakeholder organizations are focusing efforts on “Advancing the Profession” and “Defining the Highest Standards”, the reality is that basic massage training is generally inconsistent and may have significant deficiencies.

    Reading that laundry list of students’ comments about their teachers in massage school makes me want to laugh, weep and barf — all at the same time. What is true is that it is no longer acceptable for this to be any part of what constitutes massage therapy education.

    It is not possible to create the research-literate, critically-thinking, highly-skilled and well-integrated Massage Therapist of the Future without a solid and congruent entry-level curriculum that is taught by competent instructors. Every student in every institution in the country deserves that. For the time being, we (as a field) need to put aside plans to climb to the summit, and turn our full attention to building a strong and sustainable foundation at the base camp.

    How then, can we develop a corps of competent teachers in our field?

    As you mentioned, the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education has embarked upon the National Teacher Education Standards Project. This is a five-phase effort that will take a number of years to come to fruition. I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about this to visit the Alliance website at , where you can track the progress and download a white paper that gives the scope and rationale for this project. Here’s an outline of how it will unfold:

    1. The Alliance’s Professional Standards Committee is currently developing the Core Competencies for Massage Therapy Teachers. This document will be sent out for public comment, with the final version to be presented at the 2011 Alliance Annual Conference, to be held August 18-20 in Charleston, South Carolina.

    2. Once the KSAs are defined in the competencies document, a baseline teacher training curriculum will be created as a recommended template.

    3. That will lead to the next phase, which is the identification and development of teacher training resources.

    4. To create a way for teachers to demonstrate they have achieved the competencies, a certification program will be established.

    5. The final step will involve working with national accrediting commissions and state regulatory agencies to incorporate these teacher education standards.

    As noted, the Alliance is not an enforcement agency, and will have no regulatory oversight over educational institutions or instructors. At the same time, accrediting commissions and state boards typically look to the appropriate professional association in a field for guidance when it comes to developing and upholding standards. In this case, the Alliance is the go-to entity, as it is a dedicated representative of the massage education community. It is an act of self-determination for us to take responsibility for addressing the problems in our midst.

    I encourage all who are interested in this topic to join us at the upcoming Alliance Conference in Charleston. The theme for this meeting is “Bringing Teaching to the Next Level”, and there will be a special half-day discussion forum on Implementing Teacher Standards. This will provide a great opportunity to express your ideas, hopes, fears, concerns, and enthusiasm about teacher training in our field. This valuable input will be used by the Alliance as the project moves forward.

    In support of this Conference theme, one of our keynote presenters is Tracy Ortelli, who is a respected leader in the nursing education community. She’ll be speaking on the subject of “Creating a Culture of Teaching Excellence”, and will share her experiences of directing a long-term teacher standards project with the National League for Nursing. There’s a lot we can learn from a fellow health profession that has already blazed the trail. We may be moving into new territory, but there are good maps that can guide us.

    I am tremendously excited about the potential that lies ahead.

    Rick Rosen, MA, LMBT
    Executive Director, Alliance for Massage Therapy Education

  4. Laura, thank you for your FB post (loved watching it unfold) and for this blog post. I really appreciate your insights and feedback as they are coming from the ‘inside’, and hold much credibility and wisdom.

    To date, they have been limited to in-house training or sending them to an outside program, for which there are very few. Rick Rosen, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education owns a massage school (BTI in Siler City, NC) that offers a teacher training program, and I have heard wonderful things about it. So his input on the kinds of trainings that could be offered through the Alliance is very valuable.

    I think it is important that as a school owner that I learn much more about the Alliance, for which I am a current member, before I am able to state whether I am in support of its efforts or not. Though they are not a regulatory authority at this time, it appears that is their ultimate intention.

    I will be sending my director to the Alliance conference in August to explore further the what their mission and goals are and get a feel for what their intentions are, although Rick stated them pretty clearly above. I have mixed feelings about the Alliance’s ultimate goal for becoming a regulator of regulatory boards.

    I have an excellent school and hold myself to very high standards. It is why I am still in business and have exceedingly happy graduates. But my standards are my own. I don’t require further regulations to maintain my high standards.

    As for schools who don’t have the same kind of standards, and whether they have one instructor or 100, they should be held to some other standard, like a % pass rate on the MBLEx or National Exam. Those who fall below should be forced to higher standards or shut down.

    I have much more to say on this topic, but it is Sunday, and I will force myself to take the rest of the day off.

    Thanks again, Laura. It is always interesting!

    Peggy M. Huff
    Executive Director, Center for Massage & Natural Health, Asheville, NC

  5. Following Peggy Huff’s comments:

    I want to clarify that the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education is in NO WAY seeking to become “a regulator of regulatory boards”.

    The role of a peer-driven membership organization like the Alliance is to gather information on best practices from the domain of massage therapy education (and similar groups outside the massage field), and to develop standards that can strengthen and improve the education that is delivered to students at all stages of their careers. Once developed, these standards will be presented to accrediting commissions and state agencies for their consideration.

    The process of determining and enforcing regulations is under the authority of: 1) the seven different accrediting commissions that oversee massage therapy schools/programs, and 2) the various state-level agencies that license or approve institutions. While fewer than half the schools in the country are accredited, most states require educational institutions to maintain the licensure or approval mandated by law.

    The Alliance’s National Teacher Education Standards Project is a good example of “advocacy in action”. The problems outlined in Laura’s blog post have been well-known in our field for years. One of the primary reasons we formed the Alliance two years ago was to have an organizational vehicle that could carry out this kind of much-needed endeavor. We’ve started the ball rolling, but we must have the participation of massage schools, teachers and continuing education providers as members to give the Alliance the broad foundation to be working at this level.

    Since the massage therapy field has not had an independent education organization in place until the launch of the Alliance, it’s understandable that there will be questions about the mission and scope of this entity — and how it fits into the larger matrix for this emerging profession. We’re happy to address these as they come up.

  6. Hey Laura,

    You’ve got a great blog. I have to comment on your 1 teacher school comment. Many schools start out small. Ours did, with my wife (Susan Salvo) teaching all the classes. She’s probably the exception to the rule as she’s a splendid therapist, author, and especially a great teacher. I eventually started helping her teach to unload her a bit and as we got therapists with a few years of experience and/or a degree behind them, we began to expand our staff. I’ve been to many CE programs and seen lots of other teaching styles, but I’ll never be sorry that she was my sole teacher 21 years ago (even if I am prejudiced).

    – Mike

  7. Michael, I’m sure if there are exceptions to the rule, Susan would be one of them and no doubt there are others. My primary concern is not so much that one person couldn’t know everything–depending on the curriculum, which one will assume if they’re teaching it all that they designed it themselves with what they are capable of in mind–but that it means students are only getting the perspective of one person, and the opinions of one person. And I’ll overlook your prejudice! I bet you were the teacher’s pet, too 🙂

  8. What’s interesting to me is that, although the owner of our school (who also teaches massage to some classes) has a Ph.D. and is very involved in research at the Touch Research Institute, we still had no coursework in research methods or literacy whatsoever!

    I can’t complain much; we have a great curriculum and well-qualified faculty, and our grads are known throughout the area as having the best grasp of anatomy. Still, I’m fascinated by research and wish we could have learned more about it while sitting in class with a researcher for nearly two years.


  9. As a founding member of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education (AFMTE) and a founding Board of Directors member, I am unaware of any intentions of the Alliance to become a regulatory authority. It would be impossible, even if those desires existed, as the Alliance is a non-profit organization that is not in any way a government agency. While private organizations can set standards for membership into their organization, such standards are voluntary and apply only to their members.

    Further, there is no goal in place for the Alliance to become a regulator of regulatory boards. This would also be an impossibility as regulatory boards are established by individual state statutes (law) and there is no legal entity that could regulate all of them, short of our federal government taking over all state government and then massage boards would be the least of our worries.

    The state boards have created an organization called the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) or “The Federation.” Boards voluntarily belong to this organization and use it to network and to help each other in many ways, especially to solve common problems and to work toward more uniform regulation of the profession in each state. However, no state is bound to implement any particular policy adopted or recommended by the Federation. So even the Federation does not “regulate” its members. For example, the Federation created the MBLEx licensing exam which any state board can adopt for use, but no board is required to recognize it, that is up to each individual board.

    The Alliance is a member driven organization formed to be an advocate for educational issues in the massage/bodywork profession. The Alliance is working to advance the state of education in our profession at both entry level school and continuing education levels. As an advocate the Alliance does offer its input and expertise to state boards, associations, and the Federation on educational issues. For example, the Alliance is developing a proposal for teacher standards for massage schools, developing a review of the MTBOK to be used as input in its next generation, or edition or whatever the next version will be called, and is working with the Federation to develop a national continuation education provider approval program.

    Yes, the Alliance works with the other “Stakeholder Organizations” in the profession, closer with some than with others, as our focus is on education, not liability insurance for example. I am not sure where you got the impression that the Alliance had any goals to regulate regulatory boards or to be a regulatory authority. Rest assured, it would be impossible. The organization’s mission and goals are clearly stated on its website at: http://www.afmte.org/about/. I assure you there are no hidden agendas to take over the regulation of the profession. If someone has given you that impression please gently assure them it is not the case and direct them to the Alliance website. (I suspect I know where this dis-information is coming from, but I will restrain myself from addressing it for now.)

    I congratulate and welcome you as a member of the Alliance and look forward to working with you in Charleston at the Alliance Conference Aug 18 – 20. It is going to be a great meeting and I am confident you will get a clear understanding of the intentions of the Alliance’s activities. I hope you will become an active volunteer in one or more of the Alliance’s many different aspects of working toward the goals of improved education in our profession, which is obvious you support. As educators we have greater power in numbers and the Alliance is our only vehicle to promote educational excellence from an educators perspective. Se you there!!!

  10. I teach CE classes and I hear a lot about the horrors students have experienced at the hands of massage school teachers. Especially in Ethics classes. I remember one class I did for the AMTA in which I asked what was the worst experience anyone had had at the hands of another massage therapist. I was shocked to find that 75% of the answers happened in massage school. And half of those had to do with teachers or teacher’s aids. Everything from sexual advances and attacks to ridicule to physical injury.

    I recall when I first took over as director of a local massage school that was just about going under. The faculty consisted of some of the best practitioners in the area- I was impressed with the quality of the staff. BUT they knew nothing about teaching, and thus every day was a battle between the students, teachers and the administration. I had a strong background in teaching, and had taught adult learning theory and trained teachers before in a hospital setting, so I put together a training program. Of course there was follow-up. Teachers were observed, not in the spirit of criticism, but in the spirit of how could I be better than I already am? How do I apply what I learned in the training program? In just one year, through teacher training, mandated faculty meetings that were specifically designed for faculty communication, and supervision/consulting, the school turned around from going out of business to making a substantial profit. And the stream of students waiting outside my office was gone. I should also mention that a few teachers had to be fired. Some behaviors, such as constant absence or lateness or sexual advances to students, cannot be un-done in a training program. If you need training for your teachers, check Laura’s link to Teaching and Presentation Skills on my website, http://www.DynamicEquilibrium.com, and I am happy to set you up with useful, down-to-earth, basic training for massage school teachers.

    As for programs where there is only one instructor, if the instructor is good enough I could see how it might work. Especially in light of the fact that almost every proprietary massage school I know of hires only their own graduates. They don’t want any different philosophies, and different approaches to how to do deep tissue or Swedish or anything else they teach. They want copies of copies of copies. I guess that creates at least a bit of diversity. It’s also less risky in regard to signing on someone who doesn’t know their stuff.

    And I am not so sure that too much diversity is good for students at entry level learning. Consistency, repetition, flow, relatedness, these qualities make it easier to learn when you are a beginner. When you have 5 or 6 teachers all saying something different, it’s confusing and discouraging. I remember one faculty meeting in which I had each teacher come up and demonstrate how she/he taught body mechanics. Each one had something different that they emphasized, and some were so different that it was amazing that the students hadn’t complained a whole lot more than they already had. I didn’t say a word- every teacher there could see the source of the student’s confusion. The teachers worked it out among themselves and the students did much better after that.

    Thanks, Laura, for bringing up this important topic, and for writing as you always do, from your passion, from your heart.

  11. Thanks Laura, for taking the time to address so many important issues. I enjoy reading every one whether I am in clomplete agreement or not. I did attend a small school that was owned by the primary instructor and it worked out well for my small class but I do see your point. He held dual degrees in biology and education and had learned from some of the best pioneers of massage therapy in Florida before opening the school. He contracted with other qualified professionals to teach wellness, yoga, chair massage, asian modalities and reflexology which gave us an opportunity to meet successful practitioners in our community. When I receive invitations to attend CEs, I automaticcaly want to know more about the instructor(s). It is very disconcerting to read the guidelines to teach CEs in my state. I always research an instructor’s qualifications, but it isn’t always easy because everyone is promoting themselves in emails, social media & advertisements. I often contact other professionals to ask their opinions but I know “we” don’t want to slander our colleagues. I trust that one day, hopefully soon, our profession will have more consistency in education, licensure and scope of practice. Thanks to everyone who offers information and input about our profession.

  12. @Kat, that’s incredible about the researcher not teaching any research! And Cliff Korn brought up a very valid point on my FB page—if the whole program is being taught by one person and that one person gets hit by a bus–or some other life-changing emergency occurs–what’s going to happen to the students? That hadn’t previously occurred to me but it could happen and then where would those students be? If you’re in the position of teaching everything yourself, you’d better have a backup person who can step in there in your place and teach everything, as well, or have a lineup of people who can take over in the event of emergency.

  13. Does anyone feel that it may be difficult to find quality teachers at massage schools because they pay is low compared to what one could make working in the field? There are people out there that are qualified, but why would they want to give it up their practice or even cut back on it for the pay? It takes special people to be good educators in our beloved profession, so how can we make it more worth their while to come forward? I believe this could be another piece of the puzzle to improve education.

  14. Has anyone forgotten that there is no standard of science why massage works? The more massage textbooks that have come into the field the less massage therapists make in livable wage. Everybody wants to be chief and that includes the Alliance folks.

    No where is massage therapy approved as a healthcare profession except to profit state boards. COMTA who is their own entity has massage therapy approved under spa and beauty services which brings me to the question why aren’t cosmetologists regulated under the Dept. of Health instead of the Dept. of Business Regulation when cosmetologists deal with blood, diagnose and prescribe? Massage therapists do not work with blood, not permitted to diagnose and unauthorized to prescribe anything so why is massage listed under DPR.

    The average massage therapists makes $14.00 an hour. There is an awful lot of legislature for a floundering profession. Get after the school owners who don’t want to spend the money to revamp the curriculum which has not been changed since 1970 – officially. The curriculum is outdated if massage therapists are to get a job in healthcare.

    Why would any massage therapist though want to complete with healthcare? There is no money in healthcare not even if you are a physician. Massage therapy has no competition in the relaxation vertical. And if massage therapy finds a home in the healthcare field it will be most likely in palliative end of life care which is perfect for us.

    Online learning is here to stay. It is so much more active than a classroom. It brings the world to the therapist. Doctors learn procedures from online educational programs.

    If one wants to teach then you better have a B.S. degree to start and wait until the FDA and AMA gets involved with the massage field for having techniques or devices used that may not be safe for the public. If you have online classes you better have the proper credentials. Fair is fair. The NCB or Alliance folks should watch how far they push the massage profession because they are higher ups to answer to.

    Massage therapy is being replaced by technology like many other professions that you would think that would never happen to. Bureaucracy is killing the massage field. Can you massage with textbook.

    The only education that needs to be improved in the massage field is massage skills not research. Massage is not rocket science and if you are looking for more than go be a rocket scientist.

  15. I think it’s great that there are classes out there to teach the teachers. Becoming a teacher requires a different skill in addition to being a massage practitioner. I also agree with Laura that it’s good to have more than one instructor at a school.

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