Teaching Profession

Teachers Often Experience ‘Moral Injury’ on the Job, Study Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — May 23, 2019 5 min read
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Teachers have long had to comply with what they see as wrong-headed mandates—implementing teaching strategies or behavior-management programs that they don’t think will best serve their students.

But a new study in the American Educational Research Journal finds that some of these choices may be causing teachers moral injury—that is, the feeling that they or their colleagues are making decisions that go against their deeply held values. In a survey of educators in an urban Midwest district, 4 in 5 said they witnessed other staff doing things that were morally wrong, while almost half said they themselves had acted in a way that betrayed their values.

The term “moral injury” was coined by military psychologists and psychiatrists, who found that post-traumatic stress disorder was too narrow a concept to capture some of the emotions that veterans experienced, said Erin P. Sugrue, the author of the study, and an assistant professor in the department of social work at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.

“What they were finding is that there are plenty of vets who were troubled by things they had witnessed or things they had done that weren’t directly related to their safety per se, but were related to their belief in themselves as a moral person and the world as a moral place,” she said. “Accidentally killing a child, or participating in a raid on an Iraqi family’s home for no reason, were things that troubled them to their core.”

The framework has since been applied to other high-stakes jobs in which professionals are asked to make difficult moral choices—such as with caseworkers in the child protective services system.

In this study, Sugrue surveyed more than 200 educators working in an urban public school district in the Midwest. Most were teachers, though the group also included school social workers, psychologists, counselors, nurses, and instructional support staff. Administrators were not surveyed.

Sugrue gave the educators a modified version of the 9-item Moral Injury Events Scale, a tool originally developed to evaluate military personnel. Survey-takers were asked to respond to statements with numbers on a six-point scale, with one meaning “strongly disagree,” and six meaning “strongly agree.” Scores of three or higher indicate that the respondent has experienced some moral injury.

The statements are designed to gauge whether educators witnessed or participated in things that were at odds with their deeply held moral beliefs, and were split into three categories:

  1. Transgressions by others (for example, “I saw things that were morally wrong”);

  2. Transgressions educators committed themselves (“I am troubled by having acted in ways that violated my own morals or values”); and

  3. Betrayal—feeling as if school leaders, colleagues, or education policymakers had betrayed educators or students.

Most educators felt that others in their schools or districts had committed moral wrongs—about 80 percent scored above a three on the Transgressions-Other factor, and almost 70 percent scored above a three on the Betrayal factor.

But teachers weren’t only faulting their colleagues. About 45 percent said that they themselves had acted immorally on the job.

Because moral injury is a relatively new area of study, it’s hard to put educators’ scores in context. But they demonstrate a similar level of moral injury to people in the military, and they score higher than social workers in child protective services, said Sugrue.

‘The System Is Harming Kids of Color’

Some teachers experienced more moral injury than others. Educators who worked in high-poverty schools with larger percentages of students of color were more likely to say that they had acted against their values, or witnessed a staff member engaging in immoral behavior.

“We have this myth of this promise of the education system being this great equalizer, or this great system that would promote social justice,” said Sugrue. “And we know, and we have known always, that that’s never been what’s happening.”

For an upcoming paper, Sugrue interviewed some of the educators who scored the highest on these moral injury measures, asking why they had answered the way they did. Teachers told her that the district, which had recently been investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for its high suspension rates and low graduation rates for students of color, was switching to a restorative justice system—a practice in which educators forego more punitive measures and instead ask students to take responsibility for their actions and repair the harm caused.

But teachers said that they hadn’t received any training on how to implement this new system—classrooms felt chaotic as a result, and teachers felt that they couldn’t provide students with a good learning environment. The message they heard from leadership was that they had to promote students, whether students were learning or not. “It was like, just get the numbers up so we can report that,” said Sugrue. Teachers felt that this new system was also failing students of color.

"[Teachers] really felt so troubled by that, and used language like, ‘We’re lying to these students,’” she said. “Often, I think teachers are told, ‘Don’t worry about all of that, just focus on what’s going on in your classroom, focus on your kids.’ And some of the educators that I talked to, they weren’t really satisfied with that anymore. They felt like, ‘That’s fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that the system is harming kids of color.’”

This deep distrust in the educational system is different than teacher burnout, Sugrue said. Still, moral injury and teacher burnout are related: The study found that feeling that others in the education system were acting immorally, or had betrayed their values, was correlated with educator burnout and intention to leave the job.

In future research, Sugrue wants to examine how teachers address their feelings of moral injury.

“Ideally we’d want people to go into education who would be really prone to moral injury—who have high moral expectations and are really sensitive to moral violations,” she said. “But then the question is, can those people stay in a system? Because one way to respond would be to leave the profession.”

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.