Moral Injury: a stressor for school leaders - Education Matters Magazine

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Moral Injury: a stressor for school leaders

At the heart of teaching and school leadership is a desire to make a positive contribution and impact on the lives of young people. A moral purpose is at the core of all aspects of the professional practices of educators, according to Dr Stephen Brown, Managing Director of The Brown Collective.

Headrest, the 2023 Annual Wellbeing Report examining the health and wellbeing of headteachers in England, identified six common sources of stress: anxiety and burnout, bullying/intimidation, staff retention, staff recruitment, unintelligent accountability, and moral injury. The key themes articulated in the report are like the ones expressed consistently in reports such as the longitudinal findings from the annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey. The Headrest Report 2023 identification of moral injury as a stressor for school leaders does not receive the discourse it should in assessing the challenges of leading a contemporary school.

Dr Stephen Brown
Dr Stephen Brown has an international and national reputation as an outstanding CEO and leader in the field of education.

What is moral injury?

Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. Such injury causes intense psychological distress. Drescher (2011) describes a moral injury as a “disruption in an individual’s confidence and expectations about one’s own or other motivation or capacity to behave in a just and ethical manner” (p.9). Shay (2014) emphasises leadership failure and a betrayal of what’s right, by a person who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes situation.The concept of moral injury is not new and typically terminology linked to experiences of individuals within the theatre of war, from the Trojan War (762 BC) to the conflicts of the modern era such as World War II and Vietnam. Moral injury is a phenomenon that is increasingly being seen within an array of professions such as medicine, therapy, and as noted by the Headrest Report, school leadership.

What is moral injury in the context of school leadership?

The Headrest Report summarises issues causing the most stress and anxiety for headteachers.

The Headrest 2023 Report notes: “School leaders were regularly faced with having to make decisions that go against deeply held beliefs and principles due to budget limitations, staff shortages and or other constraints. They increasingly found themselves having to opt not for the best option but what they deemed the ‘least bad choice’. For professionals who entered school leadership with the drive to improve provision and pupil outcomes this constant barrage of decision making on a ‘least bad’ basis was dispiriting. It has led to an increasing number of leaders facing an abyss of self-doubt and questioning if school leadership is a role they wish to continue to fulfil” (p.9).

Moral injury is – at its heart for school leaders – a question of ethics, triggered when faced with decisions, directives, or circumstance that challenge our core values, beliefs, and moral code. School leaders are often faced with ethical decisions and moral challenges that lead to moral injury. These challenges arise from decisions that relate to student discipline, inclusive practices, resource allocation, staff, curriculum choices, standardised testing, and accountability requirements, among others. Indicative situations that can contribute to moral injury are:

Implementing or enforcing policies that conflict with personal values. For example, the impact of standardised testing on student wellbeing.

Witnessing or being unable to prevent harm to students. School leaders may witness situations where students experience abuse, neglect, or discrimination and feel a sense of moral distress.

Balancing competing interests: School leaders often must make difficult decisions that involve balancing the needs of various stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, and the broader community. These decisions may put them in situations where they feel they are compromising their ethical principles or unable to meet the diverse needs of everyone involved.

Ethical dilemmas related to educational equity: School leaders may grapple with dilemmas relating to promoting educational equity such as allocating limited resources or addressing systemic barriers that perpetuate inequities.

It can be argued that ethical decision making is a core and necessary aspect of leadership and indeed the leadership of an educational institution. Duignan (2007) notes that these present as: the rights of the individual versus those of the group or community; the exercise of compassion versus the rigid following of rules and the provision of quality support services and efficient use of scarce resources.

Teacher shortages, ever increasing demands on schools from various quarters; the constant tension of schooling provision that responds to excellence and equity; and respecting the need for individual rights balanced against a contestable common good are trends that can increase the moral injury to school leaders.

What can be done to support school leaders?

Many of the circumstances that trigger conditions that generate moral injury for school leaders continue to be a part of a larger policy debate and contest. Given the above caveat there are proactive measures that can be enabled to support school leaders in their ever-increasingly complex roles. It is important to create environments that support ethical decision making, foster open dialogue, and provide avenues for reflection and support. This can include professional learning programs that address moral dilemmas, establishing ethical guidelines and frameworks, promoting collaboration among school leaders to share experiences such as communities of practice and the provision of counselling and support services.

The Brown Collective’s flagship leadership programs, Leading with Integrity for Excellence, and Professional Practices, provide school leaders with the opportunity to enhance their capabilities and mindsets to lead in such circumstances. A moral purpose is at the core and call of educators. The ever-increasing challenge is to enable school leaders to deliver on such a purpose without injury.

About the author

Dr Stephen Brown has an international and national reputation as an outstanding CEO and leader in the field of education. He is the Managing Director of The Brown Collective, focused on the formation of educational leaders and partnering with schools, networks and system to enable sustainable impact. The organisation reflects both his collective experience over 40 years in policy, strategy and leadership development – and that of the remarkable global network he has developed during this career.

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