Saturday, January 16, 2021

Moral Distress and Teaching

 I've run across this new-to-me term several times in the past few months-- moral distress. It wasn't developed for the teaching profession, but lots of teachers are going to recognize what is being described here.

Andrew Jameton gets most of the credit for drawing the moral distress picture, looking at the world of nursing. This piece from the AMA Journal of Ethics lays out his ideas pretty succinctly and points the way to broadening them. Here's the basic definition:

Moral distress, according to Andrew Jameton’s highly influential definition, occurs when a nurse knows the morally correct action to take but is constrained in some way from taking this action.

This is immediately recognizable for anyone who has been in the teaching world for the past few decades. "Stop teaching all those full literary works," some of us were told, "and start drilling these short excerpts with multiple choice questions instead." Pull these kids out of their electives and put them in test prep classes instead. Stop worrying about their education and their life after school, and start worrying about their test scores instead. 

Honestly, moral distress in teaching can't be blamed solely on education reform. There have always been those moments. The time a supervisor told you that you needed to stop counting spelling for a student's work--including his spelling tests. The students you were required to pass because the front office wanted that kid out of there. I was in a meeting with a special ed supervisor once, debating the scores for a student in my class, and I lost my cool and snapped, "Look, why don't you tell me what grade you expect the student to get in my class, and I'll just fudge the numbers to get that." Without a hint of irony, she told me that would be very helpful. Beyond the special events, most teachers carry in a dark corner of their heart the catalog of times that they failed to provide a student what she needed.

So, yeah, the moral tensions of teaching have always been present. But ed reform ramped the whole business up by creating a set of goals that teachers know are wrong. Working the student over until she spits out the test score that the school administration wants from her--that's not what anybody went into teaching to do. 

This article lays out three stages of moral distress--indignation, resignation, acclimation. It strikes me that those of us who made ourselves barely-sufferable over the past many years simply never moved on beyond indignation, though I suppose a certain amount of acclimation is necessary in order to get things done.

I wrestled often, particular in the last decade or two of my career, with the stress of being required to do things that I knew were simply educational malpractice. Some, like coaching students to do the kind of writing that makes for high test scores, were not just about NOT teaching the right things, but actively teaching wrong things, things that would never be of any use to the student. For most of my career, my growth as a teacher was about pushing out against my own limits, finding ways to get one more ball in the air each year. The last few years, I felt stymied-- I was no longer getting one more ball in the air, but was trying to figure out how to lose as few balls as possible (har) because my administration was requiring me to carry an anvil at the same time.

"Well, just refuse," is common advice offered by people (specifically, people who don't teach). But it's tiring to go and fight every day, to fend off an angry dog with one hand while trying to engage positively with students with the other hand. And refusing is insubordination, which puts your job on the line. And so you keep computing the moral calculus, the complicated four arm balance between then good you can do while you're there, just how bad the requirement is, how well you can mitigate the damage, which choice will let you keep looking in the mirror. 

Right now teachers are struggling with a different moral distress as they are confronted with the demand to Get Back To Work (as if distance learning isn't work) even if the school's conditions haven't been improved one iota since this pandemess started. 

I don't know of any particular solution for moral distress beyond making choices that you can personally, morally live with. But now you've got a name for it. 

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