Confronting Moral Injury in Schools and Taking Action for Change

Fist striking a heart, the heart is cracking. Title text: Confronting Moral I jury in Schools and Taking Action for Change. Dr. Tim Grivois.

By Dr. Tim Grivois, Executive Director

The truth is that professionals working in schools throughout the country are at risk for moral injury. A moral injury is the harm we experience when our jobs require us to do things that aren’t ok. Typically, this happens one of two ways:

  1. A supervisor directs us to do something we know is wrong, or
  2. We are expected to serve children and families without the means to do so effectively.
Fidget spinner with moral injury at the center. Conditions that emerge from moral injury (compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout) are in the three outer circles, orbiting moral injury.

The consequences of not addressing moral injury are:

Burnout: Low engagement with work, and even lower job satisfaction.

Compassion Fatigue: Reduction in or loss of our capacity to care for those we are professionally obligated to serve.

Secondary Traumatic Stress: Experiencing our students’ or families’ stress/trauma as though it were happening to us.

While we can (and should) address burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress through effective self-care (hint: It’s probably not a jean’s day or a required meditation class), we can’t self-care our way out of the moral injury causing our stress. Addressing moral injury requires us to step into our power.

So what can we do when work expects us to do something bad for kids or creates a bad situation by not giving us what we need to do our jobs? Well, some answers from the research literature are below. While each strategy requires bravery, they all work because they address moral injury’s root causes.

  • Say no. Sometimes, we say no when asked to do more than we can do: “Thanks for thinking of me! I love the project but can’t commit to this right now.” And we always say no when asked to do something wrong: “As an educator, I am called to model appropriate tone of voice and language. As such I will continue this phone call when I hear school-appropriate words. That can happen now, or I can say goodbye and try again tomorrow.”

  • Consider if “creative non-compliance” might be an option. Maybe your school has a #PBIS store, and you’d rather your approach to PBIS be about relationships and not rewards. Perhaps you’re also concerned about equity of access to the store. You probably can’t completely disengage from your school’s recognition system. Perhaps, you could 1) focus on positive, values-centered feedback without the points/tickets in our classroom and 2) give all your students a generous amount of PBIS ‘shopping money’ whenever the store is open just because?

  • Find a new job. Sometimes, there is no fixing a toxic work environment. Our own guilt and the guilt that our school systems place on us can sometimes keep us stuck in places where moral injury is unavoidable. Guilt, however, is not a good enough reason to stay in a position where we experience moral injury, especially if we have no evidence that our leadership or our system is genuinely interested in improving.

  • Take direct action: Direct action is when we do something ourselves to address problems without waiting for the typical authority figures to do it. If our students, families, or colleagues need something, and we can use what power we have to solve the problem right now, that can be a tremendously powerful way to address moral injury.

Stepping into our power to address moral injury requires bravery, and finding people to support you in whatever strategy you choose is essential. Also important, know that you deserve a safe and healthy workplace.

“From Burnout to Balance: Strategies for Teacher and Student Wellness” is the perfect self-paced, online course for any educator experiencing burnout, compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress. Learn more about the course and reserve your space by clicking the button below.

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