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Schools – the forgotten first responders

As schools prepare to start the new year, most staff will return to work, rested and ready for what awaits them.

In North Canterbury, Kaikoura and Marlborough, they are returning to school after a harrowing few months, dealing with the aftermath of the November earthquakes. I want to celebrate what they have done alongside other first responders but I also know that there is a long way to go. Principals and teachers in the region will be at school as the holidays come to an end organising the usual beginning-of-the-year logistics but they will also be preparing for on-going aftershocks, distraught children, anxious parents and dislocated families. When students return, teachers will put their own personal worries aside and do their best for the students they have in front of them.

Researchers talk of a ‘honeymoon period’ in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Communities celebrate their survival, are heartened by the way they have pulled together and are hopeful for the future. We know from the 2010/2011 Canterbury earthquakes that once this period is over and survivors face lengthy delays, overbearing bureaucracy and broken promises, exhaustion sets in. Schools often bear the brunt of the stresses faced by students’ families.

Psychologists report that while most children and young people will have some symptoms of distress – anxiety, bed-wetting, clinginess, broken sleep, irritability or lethargy – they will recover in time. Some, depending on the degree of trauma they faced, will have on-going issues that need psychological counselling. The evidence from 2010/2011 earthquakes shows us that the extent of family violence, substance abuse, depression and suicide increases. The physical and mental health of teachers and principals decreases. Holding together their own families, dealing with relocations, repairs, EQC and insurance while supporting  students, school communities and colleagues takes its toll.

My message for the teachers, principals and school support staff in North Canterbury, Kaikoura and Marlborough is to look after yourselves and each other. You are only human.

I also want to acknowledge the teachers, principals and school support staff in Christchurch, Waimakariri and Selwyn – I’m not sure that the rest of the country fully realises what you have been through over the last six years or how draining the constant demands on your physical and mental energy have been. The recent earthquakes will have reminded you of those early days – and only you will have a sense of what your colleagues have yet to face.

In September 2010, I was living in Canterbury. As we struggled through those first few weeks without power, water and supplies, we wondered if normality would ever be restored. One of the ways communities feel their first sense of return to something recognisable, is when schools are re-opened. They might be in temporary buildings, tents or on relocated sites, but it gives a sense of security and regularity.

Many people think of disasters as happening ‘over there somewhere’ to someone else. We watch on our television screens as the country’s army or Red Cross come to the rescue. Volunteers from UNICEF or Save the Children get the schools up and running. What I saw in Christchurch was that the people who got schools up and running were not fresh outsiders but traumatised and exhausted insiders. As a former teacher, I watched the extra burdens schools took on and started recording their stories.

One principal talked of how the disaster “changed the job description principals have.” Schools were used as Civil Defence bases or as community drop-in centres. Families came to collect water, do their washing, access counselling or just sit and have a coffee in the staff room. When schools re-opened, teachers were expected to take on this extra pastoral care role despite the on-going issues in their own lives.

One teacher told me the story of living in a house slumped, cracked and leaking. Her children couldn’t play outside because of dried liquefaction contaminated by sewage in their backyard. She drove over broken roads to get to school early each morning so that she and her children could shower before school. Another told of her husband, a secondary principal, herself, a primary teacher, and their son, who slept together every night on a mattress under the kitchen table because that was safest place to be through the on-going aftershocks.

And that was only September.

Come February 2011, when the next earthquake struck in the middle of a school day, teachers and principals became on-the-spot first responders as they rescued, evacuated and cared for distraught children across the city. One principal recalled that she couldn’t think about her own family, she had to focus on her school, “I was getting texts from my daughter, a nurse, who was trapped at the hospital. My teacher husband couldn’t leave his school and my grandson was waiting at another school. I just had to assume they’d be okay.”

When schools re-opened after February, they again had to bear an increased emotional and psychological care role. A parent called Canterbury teachers, “quiet heroes” and a principal said of her staff, “Teachers are great. I can’t say enough about how much strength, how much integrity, how much they would go the extra mile…” And this has gone on for over six years.

While I don’t wish to detract from the roles of civil defence, police, army, search and rescue or fire fighters, it is time to remember that schools are often the first responders to many community issues. We don’t know what 2017 will bring, but we do know that schools will be there picking up the pieces.

Maybe one day, someone will remember to say “thank you”.

Associate Professor Carol Mutch is Head of School in the School of Critical Studies in Education in the University of Auckland, Faculty of Education and Social Work. She is a Canterbury resident who commutes weekly to her position in Auckland. Carol conducted research into the role of schools in disaster response and recovery following the Canterbury earthquakes and has now extended this to post-disaster research in the wider Asia-Pacific region.