Fall 2019

Moral Distress Among School Leaders: An Argument for Considering them in Comprehensive School Health Programs

Provincial and national studies on principals and vice principals in Canada have registered concerning data about their well-being, particularly in relation to work intensification (e.g. Alberta Teachers’ Association [ATA], 2014a, 2014b, 2017; Froese-Germain, 2014; Pollock, Wang, and Hauseman, 2014). Based on our recent study of Alberta school leaders (Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2019) a new reality demands attention: moral distress.

Our study, funded by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, included a survey of 954 school leaders (e.g. principals, vice, associate and assistant principals, learning coaches, and system leaders) and four focus groups. The aim was to gain insights into the trends that are impacting school leaders, and how they experience those impacts. We learned that school leaders are unshaken in their passion for and commitment to children and youth, but the conditions under which school leaders work is having a toll. Thus, while comprehensive school health programs necessarily focus on students, our recent insights suggest school leaders must be equally considered in initiatives aimed at nurturing and sustaining healthy schools

What is Moral Distress?

Hamric (2012) defines moral distress as “a form of distress that occurs when one knows the ethically correct thing to do, but is prevented from acting on that perceived obligation” (p. 167).  This term carries well from its origin in studies of nurses and other healthcare professionals because school leadership is an ethical enterprise. It was clear from our study that school leaders aspire to be visionaries, but over half of survey respondents agreed they feel constrained in their ability to do what they know is the right thing to do because of institutional constraints and other factors outside of their control.

What is Contributing to Moral Distress?

One school leader described a classroom:

[Out of 24 students] thirteen are ESL students.  So that’s half your class you’re trying to program for at a low English level.  You’ve got two children in there that are coded as gifted…Then you have one student with Tourette’s and one with a diagnosis of Autism… Are other classrooms much different?  Not a whole lot.

On the survey 67% of school leaders reported increased classroom complexity, and 52% reported students’ overall readiness to learn has worsened (40% reported “no change”). While cognitive, linguistic, and cultural diversity continue to shape classrooms, social and emotional needs across grades and demographics are a growing concern as exemplified by these alarming comments: “We have 80 kindergarten kids. Forty-five of them are in trauma,” and “Last year we had four intakes into the hospital with kids with suicide ideation, and this year we had 28.” 

An increasing number of students with emotional and behavioural dysregulation has also led to student aggression and violence (52% reported aggression has worsened). School leaders described being “hit and kicked”, and innocent students being hurt. Lack of coordination among health and education ministries and agencies, ineffective protocol for identification of students’ needs, and insufficient support for students, particularly in the realm of mental health, has compelled principals to fill in the gaps. One principal served as an educational assistant for five months while “waiting for the services of the system.” Their and teachers’ time is monopolized by egregious cases of student behaviour and disruption, at the expense of other students. School leaders also observe teachers’ mental health in jeopardy in these conditions. Ethically, school leaders value inclusion policies, but pedagogically and morally they question assumptions about its universal good.

In Alberta, principals do not have assignable time as a collective agreement provision as do teachers, so they feel compelled to take on coaching, supervision, and myriad “leftover” tasks.  They also observe teachers’ health in jeopardy because of the complexities, and want to protect teachers from being overwhelmed. This accounts for descriptions of school leadership as “boundless”, that it “consumes way too many hours.” Survey data corroborated such comments:

  • 61% disagreed that their workload is reasonable;
  • 53% reported feeling constrained by outside factors several times a day, week, and month (41% several time a year); and,
  • 49% reported feeling emotionally exhausted when they think about going to work.

A survey respondent aptly stated: “this is not healthy or sustainable.” 

Of equal concern, is that they are, “under-living” (Brooks, 2019) their professional lives. A school leader said, “I am supposed to be coaching and supervising and growing people.  It is my favorite part of the job, but it has become so miniscule.” Instructional leadership was the central reason most school leaders pursued a formal position, but on the survey 69% disagreed that they have sufficient time to fulfill this role. The immediacy and spontaneity of administration and management means school leaders live in a “constant state of diversion” (Brooks, p. 19), which keeps them from living their true passion. Shared and distributed leadership are standard practice in schools, but there is no such thing as “shared administration” within the rigorous accountability regime and current audit culture. They said, “I am it…the buck stops here.”  Thus, ‘juggling balls” and “spinning plates” were common tropes. One principal likened the role to “wack-a-mole…the mole comes up in September and actually never gets down.” The impact? “The feeling of not doing a great job at anything,” reported a survey respondent. One school leader described leadership as “a relational job, not a procedural job”, and so for some, teaching was a refuge where they retreated to make a difference.

Although there were reports of “amazing” and “beautiful” supports from district leaders and parents, district expectations and parents were rated as the first and fourth highest categories of constraints, respectively. A survey respondent commented, “I sometimes feel torn between my loyalty to the district and the teachers I supervise.” District-wide initiatives and centralized decisions did not always align with school contexts and needs, but school leaders felt pressured to make things work while protecting teachers from “initiative fatigue.” Principals especially felt their professional autonomy in tension with district oversight, or when they were philosophically polarized from district colleagues. Vice, associate, and assistant principals questioned their own agency, admitting to going along with principals’ decisions and believing they had no jurisdiction to challenge.

In policy discourses parents are romanticized as partners, but this survey comment shatters that image: “Parental expectations and demands are overwhelming…they do not understand or sometimes even care about the impact on the school community as a whole—only focused on their child.” The professionalization and intensification of parenting (Doepke & Zilibotti, 2019; Holloway & Pimlott-Wilson, 2016) accounts for parents’ over-advocating, and their increasing demands for schools to provide for their children. Considerable emotional labour is being spent as school leaders remain composed amidst parents’ yelling, threatening, and aggression. Further, the “parallel universe” of social media, as one school leader called it, not only yokes school leaders to their role irrespective of time and place, but also means schools are under constant watch. Consequently, school leaders took pre-emptive action by updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with positive and accurate information, adding to their workload. They suggested vulnerability to parents’ use of technology as a tool of surveillance (e.g. parents wanting to record conversations). An erosion of trust and respect was perceived as tainting the school-home dynamic, and while many school leaders experienced parents as allies, there was a resounding tone of conflict.

Compelling Questions

Qualitative comments in this study such as “never felt lonelier” and ‘I am about done” are the heartbreaking endpoints of moral distress. With concern regarding such hope-challenged statements, we were propelled toward Cherkowski and Walker’s (2018) “living theory” of flourishing schools.  We ask: How can self-care be included as the “valuable and essential work” (p. 36) of school leaders among the standards and competencies to which they are accountable? School leaders aspire to be artful about their leadership practice and want to fulfill their mandate as instructional leaders, but they are living under the “tyranny of the urgent” (Larsen, 2009, p. 157).  This study gives “phenomenological attention” (Schwandt & Gates, 2018, p. 344) to Alberta school leaders’ experiences, and we know from other research these findings are globally resonant (e.g. Oplatka, 2019). We boldly suggest that comprehensive school health programs are not comprehensive unless they also include the wellbeing of those who are the helm of implementing them. 

Dr. Bonnie Stelmach is Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. She has been a secondary school teacher in rural and northern Alberta and internationally. Her current research examines parents’ sense of community in rural contexts, as well as issues related to the practice and development of school leadership.

Barbara O’Connor is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. She has been an elementary school teacher in rural and northern Alberta. Her doctoral research examines vice principals’ conceptions of themselves as pedagogical leaders in support of teachers’ professional learning.
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