Educators increasingly struggle with ‘moral injury’

Teachers increasingly have felt compelled to act against their values or sometimes witness peers engaging in behavior that is counter to their values.
By: | Issue: July/August, 2019
July 9, 2019
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Four in 5 teachers at high-poverty urban schools with large minority student populations experience moral injury—meaning they feel compelled to act against their values or sometimes witness peers engaging in behavior that is counter to their values—according to a recent study.

Moral Injury Among Professionals in K-12 Education” surveyed a Midwestern district that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice had pressured to increase graduation rates and lower suspensions by adopting restorative justice policies. “Teachers felt betrayed because administrators were telling them to say their school was adopting these policies even though they hadn’t received any training or support,” says Erin Sugrue, the study’s author. Educators also believed administrators focused more on giving higher grades than improving education.

Sugrue advises administrators under such pressures to develop collaborative relationships with teachers, because those who feel strongly about morality may leave their district if they feel ignored.

“That doesn’t mean you have to always agree with them,” she says. “It just means it’s important to see and listen when teachers express discomfort.”

Dealing with disruptive behavior

Instances of moral injury in schools are often associated with disciplinary issues because some teachers’ views about discipline may not align with their district’s practices and policies, says Mike Anderson, an ASCD whole child approach advisor and independent education consultant, who specializes in social-emotional learning and teacher health and balance.

“I’ve worked with a significant number of schools where one student will disrupt the classroom and make learning impossible,” Anderson says. Forcefully removing such a student from the classroom could solve the problem, but many school policies only allow the use of force if a student is harming themselves or someone else. Teachers may then experience moral injury because they feel the district’s policies are preventing them from helping students who want to learn but cannot, Anderson says.

“There’s also a sense that the child who’s being disruptive is acting out because they want someone to help them regain control,” says Anderson. “Teachers would like to help, but are so worried about being accused of using force incorrectly that the default is to do nothing.”

In some districts, teachers bring disruptive students to calming rooms or other quiet spaces. However, some educators may view such a solution as a transgression against their own values about discipline.

“Teachers who believe that their role is to manage students through consequences may see this as their peers rewarding bad behavior,” says Anderson.

Sharing your beliefs

When consulting teachers on moral disagreements, Anderson suggests gathering their core beliefs to find common ground on school policies. Administrators should also encourage faculty to report questionable behavior and to use data to support policy changes, which could help prevent teachers from complaining to one another about perceived transgressions by colleagues.

“If schools don’t take the time to understand what everyone believes, then they will likely find themselves in these unpleasant situations,” says Anderson.


Potential dangers of ‘moral injury’

The term “moral injury,” originally coined by military psychologists and psychiatrists, should only be used for extreme pathological reactions, says Howard Adelman, co-director of the School Mental Health Project and the National Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. “The danger in applying it to school personnel is that it contributes to a pathological bias that already is too widespread in schools, such as overpathologizing in respect to the large-scale misdiagnoses of common learning and behavior problems.”