Jacob Goodwin: How Moral Distress is Eating Away at Teachers
Jacob Goodwin is the 2021 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. Writing for The Progressive, he talks about the psychological toll on teachers these days.
Like many teachers in the past few years, I’ve struggled to keep my head above water—feeling the immense burden of compassion fatigue. We entered teaching to nurture learners, to encourage civic participation, and to be “helpers.” Yet the current political climate punishes caregivers doubly by targeting educators and the students we are devoted to caring for each day.
I started my career in education supporting a fourth grade class of students, most of whom were the children of refugees, newcomers to this country.
Since then, the physical classroom has not changed much—alphabet rugs and tiny plastic chairs can still be found in our rooms. But the world has changed, and we, the teachers, have changed with it. The things that children are seeing, hearing, experiencing, interpreting, and repeating have changed. The harshness of politics today is a strong undercurrent in how our profession is being harmed by the ripple effect of trauma.
Ask teachers, and we will tell you that relationships are the bedrock of learning—but it feels like we’re building on shaky ground these days. We do our best each day to promote kindness, to get kids to pause and reflect on their words and actions, to be considerate of their peers. Still, even these efforts and expectations have come to be a political football, as we have seen with eight states banning social-emotional learning.
The classroom teacher of a decade ago did not fear losing their job for reading picture books. There is a sense that you are putting your career at risk if one classroom comment or discussion goes in an unanticipated direction. That kind of pressure is bad for students, teachers, and for preparing students for civic life.
The weight of working through COVID-19, trying our best to be there for our students, and then becoming targets of the culture wars has profoundly harmed teachers.
The psychological toll on teachers resulting from the systemic attack on our profession can be seen as a form of “moral injury.” Recent studies have been conducted into the effect of such work related pressures in other fields. The idea of work-related trauma reducing employee retention and wellbeing has also gained attention.