Teachers 'unsung heroes' of Christchurch earthquakes

Teachers were the unsung heroes of the Christchurch earthquakes, according to a Canterbury University lecturer heading a research project.

Veronica O'Toole is looking into the emotional impact on Christchurch teachers following the earthquakes.

Her comments come as more than 1.2 million people have signed up to take part in New Zealand's first earthquake "shakeout" to test disaster readiness.

"Teachers in Christchurch and Canterbury were the unsung heroes of two major earthquakes that occurred on their 'watch' during 2011," Dr O'Toole said.

"Not only did our teachers stay at their posts until the last child was safely collected by their parents, often late into the afternoon on that fateful day on February 22, but our teachers have continued their watch through 2011 and 2012."

Dr O'Toole said teachers had continued delivering the curriculum and supporting their students "academically, emotionally and socially, while playing a pivotal role in their communities" throughout the early post-disaster phase.

"According to experts a post-disaster phase typically continues for several years, so we are not through this yet," she said.

Dr O'Toole said little research attention has been paid to the pivotal role played by teachers whose "locum parentis" role was urgently and successfully tried and tested in the significant, dangerous and traumatic events of 2011, let alone the effects on the teachers themselves. The research report will be completed middle of next year.

She said there was anecdotal evidence that teachers did "brilliantly in managing their drills, looking after the children, staying with them until parents arrived, and managing emotional trauma".

Since September 2010, February 2011 and June 2011, teachers continued to deal with the ongoing emotional effects, personal tragedies and inconveniences related to their schools, homes, lives, themselves, their families, and many of their students who continue to be similarly and differently affected.

Dr O'Toole said even in normal circumstances, without the earthquakes, teachers were at high risk of burnout and emotional exhaustion.

"A further significant shake up has occurred this past fortnight with further major implications for our teaching heroes, especially in schools that have been designated for closure and/or merger," Dr O'Toole said.

"Given the significance of these past two years, and the significance of our teachers' roles, our research is recording the teachers' earthquake stories. We are also interested in the ways that they have managed to continue to perform to a high standard against the odds."

Dr O'Toole said previous research in the United States focused on the ways that teachers from New York's inner city schools responded to the 9/11 terrorist attack, keeping their students safe and dealing with the ongoing impacts.

Her research was similar in its intentions to honour teachers' earthquake experiences and build an understanding of the ways that Christchurch teachers had continued to teach and support their students and communities. She wants to speak to more teachers about their earthquake experiences.

"Given their significant role during the Canterbury earthquakes and over the past two years, it is high time that we paid attention to and acknowledged the heroism of our teachers."

- CHRISTCHURCH STAR

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