The Nightmare of American Public School Teaching

Moral injury is driving teachers out of the profession. Here’s how to help them stay.

Protesters gather at the State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on February 18, 2019, calling for education funding during the “March for Our Students” rally.

Soon after Annie Phan started teaching at a small San Francisco public high school in 2017, she realized Stanford’s teacher education program had not prepared her for the moral and ethical complexities she would face. Many students are low-income, with an chronic absenteeism rate of about 40 percent, and the school itself has few resources (like counselors) to compensate.

“People chalk it up to kids in high school being lazy,” Phan says of her peers’ general response to student absence. But when she asked students to share their reasons for being late or out, she found many were dropping off younger siblings before getting themselves to school, or taking care of sick or disabled parents.

“We had kids in neighborhoods that were quite dangerous for them. They would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and wait for the 5:00 a.m. bus to try to miss the window where they would be targeted.” Given students’ circumstances, the absences made sense, but “it did impact my ability to teach or be of help to them,” Phan says.

Things got worse when the pandemic hit. School moved online, and the administration added a new course to Phan’s already full schedule. “You’re so good at building relationships,” she says they told her. But that might not have been the reason. Union rules at the time dictated that advanced placement teachers receive more planning time and fewer instructional periods. The optics of the situation were not good; according to Phan, all the AP teachers were white and male. She tried getting through to the school’s leadership, telling them, “I feel like I’ve been exploited and overworked as a woman of color.”

The unfair workload, lack of collective support, and the haphazard response to the pandemic took a toll on Phan’s health. Her doctor became concerned that her blood pressure was too high.

Things got worse still when Phan considered the future. She hopes to have a child someday, but in order to take paid maternity leave she would have needed to bank all of her sick days—not an easy feat with COVID still circulating and her high blood pressure. If she could not save up enough days, she would have to pay for her own substitute. In 2022, the National Council on Teacher Quality found only 18 percent of the districts they surveyed offered teachers paid parental leave.

So Phan left. Last year, she joined the faculty of a private school that serves students who have dyslexia and related learning differences. “I have way more faith in the school that I work in now. And my blood pressure’s great.”

Phan says she suffered “moral injury” at her previous school. “What I’ve learned from my recent stint of burnout in my new job is that what I was experiencing working as a public school classroom teacher was definitely not just burnout, but moral injury,” she wrote on Twitter.

“Becoming a teacher to help students, only to be forced to participate in a system that fails them at every turn, creates moral injury.”

Originally, moral injury was identified on the battlefield. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay first coined the term in 1994, writing, “moral injury is an essential part of any combat trauma that leads to lifelong psychological injury.” But since 2009, moral injury research has expanded into other frontline fields, like health care, policing, human rights advocacy, and education.

Moral injury researchers typically use a version of an evaluation tool developed by Dr. Brett Litz of Boston University that asks subjects if they have personally committed a morally transgressive action, witnessed someone else committing such an action (often not stopping it), and/or experienced a deep betrayal of their own moral code.

Litz and his team found moral injury offered a better explanation than post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of the psychological problems some veterans were feeling. A chronically heightened fear and stress response caused by a traumatic event does happen, but deep shame and guilt caused by participating in something that violates one’s moral code is a different problem. A more accurate diagnosis allows researchers to develop better methods to treat symptoms like depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and suicidality.

By the same token, according to Phan and other teachers, “burnout” is an inaccurate term for their experiences. While burnout could be addressed by “reorganizing some priorities and hopefully taking vacation soon,” Phan says, becoming a teacher to help students, only to be forced to participate in a system that fails them at every turn, creates moral injury. “What’s it gonna really look like to support teachers from this pit of despair?” she wonders.

Going beyond a burnout paradigm could be useful in addressing the dire teacher shortage in many states. Attrition (retirement and resignations) is soaring, and there are too few new recruits in the training pipeline. Thirty-five percent of teachers say they are “fairly” or “very likely” to leave the profession, according to a recent Merrimack College survey. Fifty-six percent said their own and/or their colleagues’ well-being has gotten “a little” or “a lot worse” in the past year. A 2021 RAND report found 27 percent of teachers said they were experiencing depressive symptoms, as compared to just 10 percent of U.S. adults in general.

Research suggests moral injury might be widespread, especially in high-poverty, largely nonwhite schools where students suffer all manner of social problems that schools are expected to fix without remotely adequate resources. Dr. Erin Sugrue, an assistant professor of social work at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, surveyed more than 200 educators, using an adapted version of the moral injury scale developed by Litz. She found 80 percent of participants were impacted by moral transgressions committed by others, 68 percent experienced some sort of betrayal of their own morals, and 45 percent committed actions that transgressed their values.

Some of the teachers who scored highest for moral injury came from schools under pressure to better serve low-income students of color. “Their job is to teach and to help mold children and students,” Sugrue said. Because of a push to inflate grades and other superficial administrative solutions, teachers felt “they were no longer able to do that.”

Dr. Doris Santoro, professor and chair of the education department at Bowdoin College, says, “This is not about an inside job of ‘you need to meditate more’ or ‘get a massage.’ Self-care is not gonna get us out of this problem.” In her latest book, Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Santoro advocates for a nuanced understanding of the distress teachers experience and how it can lead to feelings of isolation, or cause them to transfer schools or leave teaching altogether.

For one teacher Santoro interviewed, the source of moral injury came from witnessing blatant injustice. “At Lee’s school, students are required to complete an extensive amount of summer work in order to be eligible for honors enrollment … The honors courses at this racially diverse school are made up almost entirely of white students.” Lee didn’t create these conditions and doesn’t agree with the policy, but she still feels culpable as a staff member of the institution.

A recent meta-analysis found academic “tracking” (where students are placed into different ability groups) has little effect on overall learning but contributes to inequality. Students within Lee’s school were deeply aware of the school’s stratification. “The labeling was an affront to Lee’s moral center as a teacher.”

Annie Tan at a protest outside of then-New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza’s Brooklyn residence in August of 2020, a few weeks before schools reopened for in-person learning

The pandemic also created moral injury through the insistence that schools be reopened long before the vaccines had been rolled out, posing a risk to students and teachers alike. Annie Tan, a special education teacher in New York City, was part of a caucus within her union that advocated for greater COVID safety, which often meant challenging local and national union leadership. She appeared in more than 15 local and national news stories.

“Why did I have to be in all these news articles? That should be Mulgrew,” Tan said, referring to the head of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew. In Chicago and Los Angeles, unions fought for and won stricter, longer-lasting mitigation measures like mandatory weekly testing for all students and staff. “Our union caved on so many of their demands,” Tan says of New York’s local.

Prior to the pandemic, Tan had no intention of leaving teaching. But she eventually gave up after Mayor Eric Adams ended mandatory masking in schools in March last year. “I have a lot of work to process the grief, anger, and moral injury,” she wrote on Twitter in October 2022. “I didn’t realize how emotionally exhausted I was until I left the classroom.”

Before working in New York, Tan worked in Chicago, where she met Karen Lewis, a visionary union leader rank-and-file educators still greatly admire. (Lewis passed away in 2021 after a long battle with brain cancer.) “Would I have quit if I were in Chicago?” Tan wonders. “I had a fighting union there. My answer would be no.”

Yet another source of moral injury is the right-wing assault on public education across red states. Teachers there are now commonly required to out their trans students, or teach bunk history. In an email to The American Prospect, American Federation of Teachers’ president, Randi Weingarten, says teachers have faced moral injury for years, especially when they were forced to implement misguided policies that “don’t help” students and cross the lines of teachers’ core educational values.

“Right now in Florida, teachers feel they can’t tell kids the truth when they ask them questions about the past, can’t talk honestly about their own identity and can’t assist vulnerable kids who need them,” she wrote. At a major gathering of teachers last week that included a montage of right-wing media education coverage, she asked educators to join her in fighting back against extremist attacks on their profession and values.

What is to be done? One antidote to moral injury is to provide teachers the resources and support to do their jobs properly, Santoro argues. Schools where teachers have a voice, and where the challenges students face are taken up and addressed within a collaborative learning environment have better teacher retention track records. Just witness Phan, who is happy to take on tough teaching tasks so long as she feels she’s got the support needed to actually do good in the process.

It isn’t rocket science, but something Santoro sees as “radically simple” and achievable without bringing in a bunch of paid consultants. Unions that are engaged in social justice work, specifically Chicago and Los Angeles, are also key to “re-moralizing” teachers’ work experiences, Santoro says.

Universal public school is one of the best institutions America has ever built, and if teachers get the working conditions they need (both monetary and psychologically), the supply of teachers could start to grow. But if they are instead bullied and batted back and forth as political footballs, and continually asked to do more with little support and fewer and fewer resources, the profession will keep bleeding staff.

Written by Liz Rosenberg for The American Prospect ~ July 26, 2023

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