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Moral Distress in Teachers

The term moral distress is in the news because of the Ebola scare as it affects doctors and nurses  ("Listen to nurses who blow the whistle on shoddy Ebola care," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16). But I maintain that it also applies to teachers.  When teachers know that something is ethically wrong but don't speak out because of fear of retaliation by their principal, they suffer from the condition. 

Although teachers don't take the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath, they nonetheless are professionally responsible for acting ethically at all times.  If it were not for the existence of tenure, teachers might be intimidated in remaining silent about anything they deemed inimical to their students.  

Consider Malibu High School in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California ("Cancer Scare at Malibu High Turns Messy," LAWeekly, Mar. 20).  When three teachers there were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and some students reported asthma and rashes, parents demanded to know if the cause was environmental. Twenty teachers refused to remain silent about the threat to their students and to themselves, and wrote to the district.  Whether the events were purely a coincidence remains to be seen.  But I applaud the teachers who acted on their conscience to become advocates for their students.

At Desert Trails Elementary School, charterized under the Parent Trigger Law in California, teachers were advised by the executive director not to tell parents about their right to services for children with special needs. Whether the high teacher-turnover rate at the school is a direct result is hard to know, but teachers who remain cannot help suffering moral distress ("Public School Shakedown," The Progressive, Oct. 22).

Moral distress is related to compassion fatigue ("When Nurses Catch Compassion Fatigue, Patients Suffer," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 3, 2012).  In both cases, witnessing the suffering of others and feeling powerless to do anything lead to sadness and despair.  Nurses and teachers are prime candidates because of the nature of their work.  Both conditions have been linked to high turnover in their respective professions.  I expect to see more attention paid to these two ailments in teaching in the years ahead.   

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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