The last thing you expect as a teacher when you take a school group to the local aquatic centre, is that a 6.3 earthquake throws everyone, including a couple of thousand tonnes of water, up in the air and back down again. According to Carol Mutch, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, this was amongst the challenges that faced teachers and principals in the aftermath of the Canterbury Earthquakes in 2011.

She spoke at a recent seminar organised by the Jack Brockhoff Centre of Child Health at University of Melbourne. A terrific and engaging presentation weaved research with her own experiences, not only of the CHCH earthquake, but describing the loss of her nephew in the Pike River Mine Disaster in 2010.

This set off my thinking about schools. I have always felt that we in emergency management don’t fully appreciate the potential that schools play in preparedness, response and recovery. They seem to be separate from the system.Traditionally schools have been used as evacuation centres or shelters during response. Interventions supporting children, the most vulnerable of populations are common within school setting post disaster.

Schools, however, are more than all of that. They are local community hubs. They are often the biggest institution in a neighbourhood, suburb or town. They are sometimes the only formal institution in some places, and with that becomes responsbility, teachers and the principal as “pillars” of society. (think about it, Principals can witness a statutory declaration)

Formal and informal activities and interactions take place, in the principal’s office, in the class room, the libraries, the school yard, and on the way home. Some of these informal interactions are important. Information is exchanged, advice (something sought, sometimes offered) given. It’s where a temperature check can be taken of what is happening in the school community, which can be a microcosm of the broader community.

The school community represents a way of reaching the broader community. Through kids to parents from them to grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbours, carers. The messengers, as Kevin Ronan, from Central Queensland University describes them. However, we tend not to think about how far we can reach when we run disaster education. The focus is on the kids in the classrooms. I think we have a real opportunity to connect directly with parents/adults in a two way conversation. These are the principles that drive relational learning, an educational philosophy outlined by George Otero. Schools are not just schools, they are a community organisation and asset.

Teachers are also amazing undervalued people, they need to be mentors, scholars, counsellors, disciplinarians, friends, role models, always in control. It’s not an easy job, as my friend Ned Manning writes in his book Playground duty. In the disaster context, they are the adults that children look up to to see that all is right with the world. too often though, they feel like they aren’t equipped for those situations (which is why we developed recovery lesson plans)

Schools are also a good way to unlock community strengths and skills. At our own school, we often talk about “We would have a builder, lawyer, journalist, marketer” in the school community that we could draw upon for advice. What tends to happen is that we label them as amorphous parents, that need to be managed. Kids themselves are the source of nimble enthusiasm and capacity. Take the project that Emily did for Marysville as an example, a 12 year old organising something that nobody expected her or asked her to do. She picked up on a few cues, thought through it and came up with a project.

Schools are also good examples of bonding and bridging social capital. When we have had deaths or serious illnesses at the school, the school community just organises itself food is provided, transport arranged, kids picked up. When we had our floods, parents turned up at the school on the Sunday to help clean up, and the school was operational when the kids came to school on the Monday morning. It was as though the flood had never happened.

So, I think we need to get better in engaging schools. This can be hard, as there is always the behemoth of the Departments of Education who seem to think everything is going along fine, thanks very much, not sure why you would suggest otherwise.

Of course if we are talking about community led or community driven resilience building, then the school would be central to this and driven from the reading circle on the carpet of the Prep grade, literally from the bottom up.

3 thoughts on “Schools

  1. Agree wholeheartedly. Another good one.

    Next time we have a coffee, remind me to tell you about the saga of DEECD and the Community Fire Refuges in schools!!!!



  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts here John. Schools are such an important part of community but remain somewhat disconnected from the more formal emergency management arrangements. I’m fortunate to have heard Carol, Kevin and George speak about schools and harnessing the power of education and I’m hopeful that schools and children will eventually be recognised in the emergency management space as the wonderful community assets that they are.


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