An image of a person typing on a tablet is used to illlustrate the concept of news coverage in the massage therapy industry.

The Alliance for Massage Therapy Education (AFMTE) is the recipient of the first annual Champion Award presented by MASSAGE Magazine, given in this case for AFMTE’s dedication to raising the quality of massage therapy education.

MASSAGE Champion Award

This organization promotes its National Teacher Education Standards Project, which includes a model teacher-training curriculum and certificate program; advocates for the interests of members through collaboration with stakeholder organizations, governmental agencies and regulatory bodies; provides educational opportunities for educators and administrators; and offers such support to both teachers in brick-and-mortar schools and providers of continuing education.

There are many new projects AFMTE is undertaking—including diversity, inclusion and belonging among massage students and staff, developing support for schools, and combatting low-quality massage education.

MASSAGE Magazine’s staff is honored to have the opportunity to recognize the AFMTE for the important work it does to support the very foundation of the massage field—schools, educators, students and continuing education providers. We are also pleased to offer another unique program to celebrate the massage field, and look forward to making this Champion of the Year award to other deserving organizations and individuals in the future.

We sat down with AFMTE President Shari Aldrich to discuss the projects and plans occupying the AFMTE’s board members and committees.

MASSAGE Magazine: What can you share about one important project AFMTE is working on right now?

AFMTE President Shari Aldrich
AFMTE President Shari Aldrich

Shari Aldrich: Teacher resources and teacher certification, especially. We are building continuing education classes for instructors around the core competencies, to provide more direction for schools for educating their instructors.

We are also working on a portfolio review process. Say an instructor has training; how do you pull it together to demonstrate that they understand teaching methodology? The portfolio review would mean having our Teacher Certification Committee review their training and [giving] the certificate or the seal of approval.

We are also doing outreach to schools to let them know that we are here. If I look at it from the lens of me owning a school, I did not know the AFMTE was here. There [must be] many schools out there that haven’t heard of the AFMTE, and we need to do a better job of marketing ourselves.

MM: Once you’ve reached schools, is there a goal of getting a lot more massage teachers certified through the AFMTE? If so, why is that important to the massage industry?

SA: Yes, we are. Because I’m a school owner, which I think is different than the past leadership at the Alliance, I think I have a different lens. As a school owner, I know the difference to what my school looked like before I had instructors who were certified versus what it looks like today with experienced instructors and teaching methodology.

It is, hands-down, no comparison. My outcomes are better with my students. I have less student complaints that I have to deal with around student satisfaction, around favoritism, around only teaching to one teaching style. It’s definitely a competitive advantage for me as a school to have instructors who understand how to teach.

MM: What does the U.S. massage-school landscape look like now, after the past almost-three challenging years?

SA: During COVID-19, resources were not there to help schools through a really difficult and challenging time.

MM: Do you think those resources should have come from the AFMTE?

SA: That’s a really good question. I honestly don’t know. But nobody stepped up to take a leadership role. I don’t know who should have stepped up to be more of a resource for schools to give guidance on how to handle really hard things, but nobody did.

MM: What were some of those hard things?

SA: A lot around policy for COVID-19, resources for students—especially students who were struggling emotionally. We had the pandemic, we had Black Lives Matter, and we had all the political strife that was in the United States. We had job losses, we had financial difficulties for students.

Four hundred massage schools in the U.S. closed during this time because they did not have resources to help them. Did they close because the students lost their financial resources? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know the challenges were pretty big for schools having to convert to an online platform.

MM: Yes. Pivoting quickly to online education was a huge growth point for massage schools.

SA: I was an IT director before I was a massage therapist, so it actually felt pretty comfortable—like I was putting on a pair of comfortable shoes and stepping back into that role. But a lot of school owners grew up in massage therapy, became teachers, bought a school, and didn’t have resources to make that quick switch.

MM: The COVID-19 pandemic is still underway, and we’ve seen with monkeypox that there could be another pandemic tomorrow, unfortunately. So are you trying to craft the AFMTE into that resource for schools should something this momentous happen again?

SA: I believe that we have a responsibility to step into more support for schools. We could provide mentorship for massage school owners.

MM: What else did these past almost-three years inform the AFMTE about, regarding needs of today’s educators?

SA: That diversity and equity is another piece of what we feel is an important piece that we can contribute to the education realm.

MM: AFMTE now has a Diversity, Equity & Belonging committee. Let’s talk about what that committee is focused on.

SA: Right now it’s a small committee with four people, and they are all white people. They’ve spent most of their time for the last nine months looking at their whiteness. They wanted to dive in to get to know themselves before they began bringing in people of color.

We started with a conversation on what made us us. How were we raised? Did our parents work? What are the stories that are in your family that people maybe don’t talk about because they’re hard to talk about? Such conversations help us to not discount somebody else’s lived experience.

The committee didn’t want to look like they were trying to be inclusive, like, “Let’s get as many black people and brown people and all these different people so we look like we’re being diverse.” And so [AFMTE Diversity, Equity & Belonging Committee Chair]Cal Cates wanted to start with, “Let’s look at our whiteness and let’s go from there.”

It’s not about increasing enrollment numbers and it’s not about appearing to be more diverse; it’s asking what is unacceptable, and then learning to adapt from what is unacceptable.

MM: What are some examples of what might be unacceptable?

SA: School policies, catalogs, even dress codes. For example, I recently had a class start at one of my campuses that was, for the first time for me, an all-male class. It was five male students. And I’m reading through the catalog with the lens of, oh my God, this is so biased against women. “You cannot wear short-shorts.” “You can’t wear belly shirts,” as examples. I changed my whole catalog—but had I not had that lens of what’s unacceptable, I wouldn’t have made changes.

If we’re looking at diversity, equity and belonging, for example, like a student maybe who doesn’t bathe often, but are they homeless? Do they have access to a shower? Maybe a black student with hair that doesn’t meet what your perception of what that policy should look like at your school. So those would be some things I can think of.

AFMTE feels this is an important conversation for us to be having—I think the time is now for these conversations. Five years ago, I don’t think we could be having these conversations, but there is a national conversation around diversity and equity.

When a school is unprepared for the conversation but it comes into the classroom by means of students who are experiencing it out there, it is really hard for administration to know how to handle diverse problems in a community.

MM: A problem that is growing in scope is low-quality massage education. Tell us how AFMTE is approaching that.

SA: the Board is committed to ensuring interested students can find legitimate, ethical and high quality massage programs. To this end, we are developing programs to help level up massage education.

For example, I spoke with a student in Washington who went through an online massage program, who did his anatomy and physiology through University of Texas, and then was told by his massage program to watch YouTube videos to learn hands-on massage. This program was not an approved massage program in Washington State, but he didn’t know that when he registered for the online program.

 That’s the danger of programs that are not legitimate, there’s no education happening. When I talked to him on the phone, he said, “I don’t even know who to be mad at.” This student paid them $9,000 and gave nine months of his life for a massage program only to learn he was unable to take the MBLEx. There was no school to approve him and he had nobody to complain to.  

MM: Have you heard of additional examples of this type of thing taking place in massage education? 

SA: Yes.  I’ve learned of other students encountering similar problems with online massage programs around the U.S. The AFMTE is part of the national conversation to help identify illegal schools and also with educating the public on how to find legitimate massage schools. These are some of the important topics that we are focused on. 

MM: That’s a challenging situation, and I’m so glad the AFMTE is tackling this problem.

As we get to the end of this interview, what else would you like to tell our readers?

SA: We’ve got new board members and new energy, and I think it’s going to be some exciting things going forward!

MM: Thank you, Shari.

Karen Menehan

About the Author

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief–print and digital. Her recent articles for this publication include “A Move to Transcend State Boundaries: Updates on the Interstate Compact for Massage Therapists” and “This is How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practices Make Business Better,” one of the articles in the August 2021 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of the national 2022 Folio Eddies Award for editorial excellence.