October 5th, 2018—In my previous post I drew comparisons between the moral injury that physicians and teachers experience because of the choices they face when treating patients or educating learners. Both professions, it seems, experience moral injury as a result of limited professional freedom in response to institutional imperatives that generate goals focused on efficiency, numerics, prescribed treatment/teaching protocols, and economic bottom lines. The repeated exposure to decision making that threatens moral or professional values can, as Diane Silver (2011) writes, leave “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.” Moral injury was first used to describe soldiers returning from war where life and death decisions are made that often cut across a soldier’s morals, values, or beliefs. Although the experiences of teachers are not analogous to that of soldiers on the battlefield there are still many comparable elements that resonate with the descriptions and costs of moral injury.
The counseling literature addresses the question of how to begin repairing moral injury through a process called “moral repair” or “soul repair.” Soul repair is an apt descriptor for the healing that many teachers are seeking in response to the professional pain they experience. Soul repair fits because teaching is a profession anchored in “calling”; a tight relationship between the inner commitments of a teacher and external conventions of the profession. Most teachers dedicate time, talent, and treasure to the education of learners because of a sense of moral drive or longing to serve others. And it is broken heartedness—a separation from calling—that underscores the moral injury when in order to retain their job they are asked to reduce students to data on a spreadsheet. Although this shift in seeing students as objects is momentary and can reveal negative-instructional trends that should be addressed, the repeated diminishment of students over an extended period of time can result in a moral rupture. A teacher can, as Parker Palmer notes, find themselves in a state of “divided-self” where the inner calling to teach becomes separate from the external role. This is remarkably similar to the consequences of moral injury described in the newsletter Good Therapy: “A moral injury can also be described as a sort of disconnect between one’s self and second self, where the second self is the part of the person that develops in the face of combat or a situation requiring a difficult decision. Moral injury confuses the two selves…” (2016).
Depending on the depth or nature of a teacher’s moral injury the elements of soul repair can include individually-focused practices like mindfulness, meditation, or the modulation of emotions through training in social-emotional learning (SEL). These are everyday approaches to stress reduction that any teacher can initiate during breaks in the day, practice as part of a curriculum aimed at teaching students mindfulness, or during an instructional breather when students are engaged in self-directed learning. Taking three deep breaths is a simple way to restore some healing to a bruised or wounded heart. Another easy practice is the keeping of a gratitude journal. The goal is to write two or three things that made you laugh, smile, or feel connected to someone else during the day. By their very nature these strategies are designed to bring teachers back into relationship with their inner-wisdom; the deep center of quietness out of which their moral integrity emerges.
Sometimes the moral violation cuts deeply into the soul of the teacher and the healing process—the return to moral integrity—entails more extensive work and repair. Let me provide an example that will suggest a process by which a community of educators can work toward a shared sense of wellbeing. Throughout this description I will draw on strategies pioneered and practiced in the therapeutic care of soldiers recovering from moral injury.
I regularly host conversations with educators with the explicit purpose of helping them reconnect their inner call to teach with the external imperatives of their institutional life. These teachers, in varying ways and times, are experiencing some aspect of moral injury. They are thirsting for reconnection and the integration of their two-selves. In soul repair the first step toward wholeness is responding to the internal cry of the heart as it reaches out for support and reintegration. These teachers, knowingly or not, are following the guidance of The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University to never approach the process of soul repair alone but rather to seek out “community for a shared process of healing.” In the field of education the ubiquitous Professional Learning Community (PLC) could be a readymade community for healing the heart of educators. Of course, not all PLCs have the requisite level of relational trust, listening skills, and communication to successfully follow the conventions of soul repair. If this is the case then alternative sites for gathering in community should be explored.
In keeping with the soul repair literature we always begin our time together with ritual. This typically means welcoming participants and establishing norms which create a container where participants are: invited—not required—to share their story; encouraged to avoid fixing or saving each other; expected to show up completely with all their challenges and gifts; focused on deep-listening to the teaching heart of their colleagues; and bounded by a commitment to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting stays in the meeting). Prior to our gathering I email a poem and reflection questions to participants. The purpose is to invite the soul to “engage” the material in a way consistent with the slow and deliberate approach the heart uses to construct knowledge. I recently sent Galway Kinnell’s Saint Francis and Sow to a group because the images in his poem invite me to remember that effective teaching stems as much from “self-blessing” as it does from technique. The power of poetry, as Emily Dickinson, notes comes from its ability to “tell the truth but tell it slant.” The Moral Injury Project advocates the use of “artistic and literary formats for public engagement” because they invite “listening and witnessing” to the divided heart. Healing language for the teacher heart is metaphor, imagery, and analogy. In high school I learned to take poems apart, to analyze for meaning and the poet’s word choice. In soul repair the goal is to let the poem speak to your wholeness, to let the poem interpret you.
My goal with a community of brokenhearted educators is not to achieve the measurable metrics of industrial teaching. Instead I’m offering a brief respite from the divided life. The longer term goal of soul repair is self-forgiveness, spiritual healing, restoring notions of self-worth, and the restoration of wholeness. Kinnell seeks a similar outcome when he writes: “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness…” Imagine if you will an educational setting where the measure of success is the depth to which the “reteaching of loveliness” is achieved.