Teachers and Moral Injury

By Kevin Stoda

Help your neighbors, friends, family and yourselves. Teachers need more help. They work with traumatized communities and students and communities. Find a way to cultivate mental, social and spiritual help for your districts educators across America.

Williamson, Stevelink and Greenberg (2018) state, ”Many people confront potentially morally injurious experiences (PMIEs) in the course of their work which can violate deeply held moral values or beliefs, putting them at risk for psychological difficulties (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, etc.). “

Moral injury is all in the news today as the nation has more people suffering from moral injury, PTSD, and mental health issues. This is what we recognize every May with National Mental Health month.

Too often, however, when the term moral injury is used, Americans only think about soldiers, doctors, and nurses. They ignore one of the more historically popular and needed professions–that of our nation’s educators.

Mental Health Month

In May of last year, I was celebrating and recognizing through active written and spoken to my school’s administration the need for our high school to really focus on improving mental health training for teachers and students during the subsequent school year.

The result for faculty in the 2018-2019 school year, however, was only to offer one or two voluntary progressive muscle relaxation session for teachers the following autumn.

Meanwhile many teachers have come and gone from the profession in the interim–since Spring 2017 through our present day. (The average turnover rate for teachers in this school district is that 1 out of every 3 or 4 teachers leave the district each year.)

Coming Back to the USA to Help

In 1986, when I last taught in this same district and in this same high school (which I have been teaching in again since 2017), the only area of extremely high teacher turn-over in the was at the high school level was in the area of special education (and the turnover rate for all special educators at that time was an awe-numbing 50% across the entire USA at that time).

Nowadays, almost the entire district is having difficulty maintaining staff.

This is partially because a culture of caring has not been cultivated in too many schools. On the one hand, some schools are more student centered and community centered than they were in prior years. However, the caring for the mental, spiritual and social health of educators has been diminished just in the same decade in which both local and state governments have made war on educators and other public employees.

When after a decades-long year hiatus living abroad I agreed to return to my old stomping grounds in the USA and begin to teach immigrants and refugees in a local Kansas City High School in 2017, I was not prepared for the social and work isolation I would be teaching under.

Moreover, I had arrived back in America with such high expectations for improving my students lives in an American public school that I quickly fell victim to “moral injury” in carrying out my duties and being administered to in such adverse manners.

My Moral Injuries

Allow me to restate what Williamson, Stevelink and Greenberg shared in Occupational Moral Injury and Mental Health: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis , ”Many people confront potentially morally injurious experiences (PMIEs) in the course of their work which can violate deeply held moral values or beliefs, putting them at risk for psychological difficulties (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, etc.). “

I personally confronted this moral injury through a great variety of”morally injurious experiences” starting with the fact that my immigrant and refugee students were not being offered enough care for their trauma and developmental issues. For example, of the first 2 or 3 students I had in my classroom as of August 2017, needed to be studied by a professionals in the field of diagnostics for special disabilities. I was told, however, that diagnoses would not likely to be ever undertaken for these two youths of 16 and 17 years respectively.

Why? or Why not?

Simply put they were considered too old for the district to offer the resources for them to be observed and diagnosed properly.

Worse, I had no one assigned to me who could help me dive through this sort of bureaucracy and get my students the help they needed.

This was my PMIE potentially morally injurious experience #1.

What? You don’t think the student should really learn the subject areas?

At my high school, I had basically been assigned over the past two years to teach and run a one-room school house. This one-room-school house would target these four assigned courses for our refugees and immigrants, i.e. who had missed from 2 to 8 years of their formal education prior to arriving in our school district.

(1) Introduction to Math

(2) Introduction to Social Studies

(3) Introduction to Science , &

(4) Introduction to English

Students would earn grades from me in these four areas every quarter they stayed with me. They were to be allowed to leave this one-room school house when they had achieved regularly a 75% level across all for remedial subject areas.

Alas, early on the signals I received from the district’s ELL (department of English for Language Learners) often were contradictory and often I was told things like:

“These students do not need to know their times tables without using a calculator.”

“These students do not need to learn about Romeo and Juliet through a remedial textbook. Get them something more personal and motivating.”

These students only need to know the vocabulary for (1) the seasons, (2) the solar system, and perhaps two other topics like these before being considered proficient enough in English to take on high school biology.

To comprehend American culture, these students don’t need to be able to read nor draw a map of the USA.

My efforts to promote a growth mindset were often attacked at every turn. My identity as a teaching professional of over 3 decades was constantly being chipped away by many who came to observe my classes by the administration on a monthly basis.

This was my PMIE potentially morally injurious experience #2.

I felt that my attempts to help student to learn grit and develop a growth mindset were being shunned. It heart and left me dazed at times. This is why I began to think of the mental health of myself–as well as that of my colleagues in the district.

I looked around and observed many teachers being brow-beat in the same manner–some would leave earlier than me–others would leave a month or two later.

We were shell-shocked.

We wanted to help our nation. We wanted to help our youth. We were being hamstrung and criticized for helping our students prepare for life and work.

What about you? Have you had a potentially morally injurious experience ?

Actually, I experienced many more of the injurious situations than outlined above during the past 2 year.

However, what about you and your work place? What have you experienced?

I’d love to know.

On the other hand, as a lifelong educator, I want you to consider the stress that our educators are experience. I then want you to seek ways to demand better conditions for your teachers, so they can do a better job for your students.


[1]Victoria Williamson (a1)Sharon A.M. Stevelink (a1) and Neil Greenberg (a1) (2018)

Occupational moral injury and mental health: systematic review and meta-analysis, Volume 212Issue 6,  , pp. 339-346

[2] The district was supposed to assign me a good mentor, but they never got around to undertaking their duties as far as training and providing regular assistance. Even the mentor, I was given on-and-off agreed that both students I had identified had some issues beyond trauma that were affecting their learning. Likewise, the school psychologists agreed that the district would not offer the timely resources needed to help these two refugees.

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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