making choices

Our first concern should be to do what is good and right, not what is ‘correct’. We need the courage to break rules and be ready to be called to account for this.

photo: kings cross detached youth work projectAs informal educators we are always making choices. Having to decide such things as who to work with, where to operate and how to allocate our time. In part managers may make such decisions for us. They may identify the needs to be met and tasks to be undertaken. However, we still retain leeway as to what to prioritize and how to spend our time. Because it is difficult to supervise informal education, guidelines are usually vague. Workers may be employed to run a project, support a community initiative or promote a specific activity, but their remit will almost always allow some freedom to decide how they operate. It will be up to the workers to select which individuals or groups to focus upon, respond to positively, or to ignore or avoid.

Our first duty is to the needs of ‘participants’ or clients’. Many workers fall out when one party believes the other is using the job to indulge their enthusiasms, or is putting their interests above those of participants. Such behaviour is rightly seen as unprofessional.

Once we are clear about putting participants first we have to make judgements about need. We have to decide what work will create the best opportunities for people to share in a common life. Unfortunately these two criteria - benefit and need - rarely coincide.... No off-the-peg formula or checklist exists capable of providing an answer to this or similar dilemmas. We must choose according to the circumstances. We must always be aware that those we work with, or for, may ask us to justify our decision. We need to demonstrate we made an ethical judgement, a decision based upon notions of the right conduct (and not upon our likes and dislikes, or self-interest).

What we consider to be the right conduct may not accord with our manager’s views, or with the opinion of other interested parties. Working in ways that honour core values can place us in difficult, even dangerous, positions. We know of people being sacked because they placed their duty to a ‘client’ above agency procedures; physically attacked because their actions were seen to undermine the position of a group in a community; and cold-shouldered by colleagues because they ‘blew the whistle’ on the unprofessional conduct of one of their co-workers. Fear around such matters can lead us into compromising core values. We may look for the easy way out. Unfortunately, there often isn’t a solution that is both comfortable and honourable. Ducking difficult questions undermines our moral authority. We need to demonstrate that we are making an ethical judgement.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published November 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014