Teachers as First Responders

As we know well in Christchurch, you can’t predict where you’ll be when a major disaster strikes.  For thousands of Christchurch children, the 22 February 2011 earthquake struck while they were at school, so it was their teachers they turned to for immediate protection and comfort. Their teachers put their own fears aside to look after the children until their parents could pick them up, often many hours later.  In the disruption of the weeks and months that followed, teachers continued to provide important emotional support to their students, often while struggling with their own difficulties at home and work.

“You just did it. You just had to. You became now not only the teacher but you became the caregiver of these children. It wasn’t a hard thing to decide. ... you just did it .... I don’t know, it just came out of nowhere. I don’t have any children of my own, so these are my children ... you’re just in so much overdrive and adrenaline that you don’t have time to think about it.” (extract from interview with Teacher 3)

UC Education researcher Dr Veronica O’Toole received funding from CEISMIC to study how teachers coped with their “first responder” role, both at the time of the earthquake itself, and in the long and difficult aftermath.  She interviewed twenty teachers from across the greater Christchurch region, asking them about their earthquake experiences, and how they dealt with the emotional impact.

“I was really apprehensive about getting back into the class-room, because it had frightened me so much and the children. It was hard getting the children to go back in that environment and so for a few days, we did lots of outside activities – walking or teaching outside and just slowly bringing them in – that was really frightening for them. I think they thought that they were going to die that day or what, I don’t know, but it was really traumatic for them and then every little [aftershock] after that, they’d try and run outside ... We just wanted desperately to get back to some kind of normal.” (extract from interview with Teacher 3)

We are excited to announce that the results of her research have been published in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education.  O’Toole and her colleague Myron Friesen discovered that despite the danger, the majority of teachers were able to overcome their fear by focussing on the needs of the children, and made use of their training in emergency procedures.  In the longer term, O’Toole and Friesen found that most teachers were coping well, especially when they had good support from school management. 

“I was thinking about how I used to see more in life and the world in general before the quakes. I think I was kind of angry about a lot of things – angry about injustices of the world and kind of worried about my future ... [and now] ... as one of my friends mentioned, ‘When you wake up and the sun’s shining, you’re lucky.’ Be thankful that you’re alive and I think that’s something that I’ve taken away from the quakes” (extract from interview with Teacher 19).

If you want to read the full article (which includes many more extracts from the interviews), it is available free for a limited time from http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1TCP6,GtqvcFvu

Extracts sourced from:
O'Toole, V.  and Friesen, M. (2016) Teachers as first responders in tragedy: The role of emotion in teacher adjustment eighteen months post-earthquake. Teaching and Teacher Education 59: 57-67. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.05.012.