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Opinion: It’s not teacher burnout. It’s moral injury.

When Utah educators once again rally and speak out against bills, keep in mind that the problem is not just an internal inability to “cut it” in the classroom or run-of-the-mill burnout.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Bonneville Elementary School, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

With the 2024 Utah legislative session starting, my teacher heart already aches with concern.

What new unattainable and unfunded requirements will be passed? How will educators be tasked with fixing society’s systemic problems? Will any policy discussion address the realities needed for student success (ahem, class sizes)?

In response, and with the best of intentions, we will inevitably hear about “teacher burnout.” Recently, however, I learned an apt term used to describe feelings of inadequacy in the workplace due to unrealistic expectations and questionable policies. The term, initially used for military personnel and now used among physicians regarding their own professional challenges, resonated with me on a deep level as a teacher: moral injury.

When discussion focuses on “teacher burnout,” the onus of failure falls on that individual’s inability to remain in the profession. Burnout centers on teachers’ exhaustion and frustration, and it is often met with well-intended suggestions of self-care and ideas on how to power through to the next school break. The concept of moral injury, however, broadens the conversation to include the why behind educator exasperation.

Moral injury draws attention to the immense disconnect that occurs when the educational policies we are required to follow are at odds with what we know is right.

In the education world, this manifests as critical stakeholders (many with no education experience) enacting policies that conflict with what teachers (professionals in the field) know is best for student academic and emotional success.

We have seen this happen time and again during legislative sessions: lawmakers inadequately funding our schools; the implementation of unrealistic standardized testing protocols; and the passing of legislation inhibiting our ability to make teaching choices as professionals.

When policies and laws lessen our ability to help all children reach their potential, educator frustration goes beyond burnout into a moral disconnect.

Looking ahead to this session, I am bracing for bills that target students, educators and the public education system as a whole. When Utah educators once again rally and speak out against bills, keep in mind that the problem is not just an internal inability to “cut it” in the classroom or run-of-the-mill burnout.

The harmful education policies and barrage of legislation targeting schools just may be contributing to a tipping point of educator moral injury.

Rachel Wright

Rachel Wright has been teaching elementary school since 2014. She is a former Utah Teacher Fellow with the Hope Street Group and a graduate of the Westminster University Master of Arts in Teaching program. She continues to elevate the voice of educators, support teachers as leaders, and work with policymakers to enhance education for Utah’s students. Opinions are her own.

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