No child will ever return to the school they left: how past disasters impacted on schools in Japan and New Zealand

As schools plan to reopen for all students, they can learn from the experiences of schools in Japan and New Zealand, where earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disasters not only closed schools but shook the whole community. Teachers identified what helped and what hindered their attempts to get their schools up and running again. Unexpectedly, students took the lead in school and community regeneration.

As I write this blog, schools all around the world are closed to all but a small number of students and, in the UK alone, millions of parents are struggling to educate their children at home. We do not know how long the coronavirus measures will go on for. What we do know is that when schools reopen things will be different. To paraphrase a famous saying of Heraclitus, ‘No child will ever return to the school they left, for it’s not the same school and he’s not the same child.’

Parents are getting a taste of the challenge of teaching their own children. Some are enjoying it, some are going mad trying, and others have abandoned any attempts to even keep their offspring at home. Some children are trying to replicate some aspects of school in the home, others have discovered a completely new way to advance their own education, and a few still take to the streets, distancing themselves from any activity that reminds them of their own school failure. Teachers have had the demands of external high-stakes testing removed temporarily, replaced with the new demands of providing support and curriculum for home-learning. Some teachers have had to stay at home, due to their own vulnerability or that of family members, but others have carried on teaching the 1-10% of students who are still coming into school. And what an interesting group that has turned out to be: a mixture of offspring of key workers and children deemed ‘vulnerable’.  I’d like to believe that for some students, this will be a truly inclusive experience, and a time when this group of students and their teachers can get to know each other as fellow human beings. These groups of pupils may well gain a status all of their own, new friendships, and a reluctance to return to the feudal teacher-student roles of the pre-coronal era. School leaders, teachers and teaching assistants might also feel that this is a good time to revisit their relationship with students, and with each other.

We can learn from the past

We can learn some lessons from two particular pieces of research involving the response of school staff and students following traumatic disruption to schooling and community life. The first of these was a study of teacher burnout following the 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Kuntz, a Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change and Leadership Development, analysed the responses of 125 teachers to an online questionnaire and concluded that increased levels of burnout were associated most strongly with role overload. Teachers were expected to return to normal, covering an unadjusted curriculum at the same time as having greater pastoral and disciplinary demands made on their time and energy. At the same time, these teachers had to deal with their own emotional needs and those of their families and community.

Another factor that added to teacher stress was the role conflict brought about by the different and sometimes incompatible expectations placed on them by students, parents and school leaders. Teachers reported that organisational support was really important at this time, and even simple communications of appreciation and thanks really helped to keep burnout at bay. Those teachers who received emails or phone calls from school leaders were helped to avoid burnout and a single general message of condolence for the hardships and any bereavement, was greatly appreciated by school staff.

Lynne Parmenter, researcher in education for global citizenship, examined the many ways in which teachers, students and schools responded in the year after the 2011 triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster. As schools were used as community shelters, school staff took a lead role in community support at a time when they and their own families were suffering great hardship and bereavement. Previous ‘teacher bashing’ and negative publicity was replaced by a huge community respect for the teaching profession that had shown such leadership, encouragement and resilience in the face of tremendous hardship:

In various ways, then, the disaster has served to underline the traditional view of the teacher that had been eroded to a certain degree in recent years, that is, the teacher as a dedicated, upstanding member of the local community, both as a form of self- identification among teachers themselves and as a professional identity in the wider community.

I was fascinated to read that it was children who took a lead in rebuilding community resilience post-disaster. For months after the earthquake there were media reports of the active citizenship of the students who in some cases took over the running of the shelters and assisted in food distribution and other community-building initiatives. Students independently got themselves into teams to prepare and distribute food, fetch water, do cleaning amongst other things. One seven-year-old decided to start a community newspaper to help people to feel positive about life. She enjoyed drawing and writing stories and this is how her newspaper started. In a short time, students of all ages joined her in producing a daily newspaper, displayed on the school wall for all to read.

In her analysis of the students’ behaviour, Parmenter describes how students in Japanese schools play a very active role in school life, assisting with preparing and service school meals, and cleaning and maintenance of their schools and classrooms. When it came to the time for schools to reopen, schools held grand opening ceremonies, which boosted the morale of both the schools and their communities. These were widely televised and photographed. The return to school was a strong symbol of security for children whose world had so recently become highly insecure. One head teacher reported:

The children have had various experiences and there are issues in the temporary housing with parents having lost their jobs and so on, but when they come to school, it’s important that life goes on as normal, that they know we are all together, and that we look to the future positively.

The response of the students to the disaster really moved and impressed the whole community and showed just what quite young children are capable of. Not only did students care about their communities, but they were able to take on responsibilities for supporting and rebuilding their communities

What can we learn from these studies about reopening schools?

Teaching staff

Simple messages of support and appreciation can make a huge difference to teaching staff and can even prevent burnout and turnover. Whilst the lockdown is going ahead, regular communication through emails or calls to those both in school and in isolation are really important. A simple email to ask if staff are okay and have need for support is worth a lot at this time. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to promote teachers’ status in society.  Teachers and teaching assistants have played a role as key community members in this period, and this needs recognition firstly within schools and then by the community.  Many people who do not have school-age children are unaware of the role that schools have been taking in community support and the work that they have been doing backstage to support home-learning and the continuing education of those still coming to school. Invite journalists to write about this, get students to write about their experiences of education at this time, and make it publically available.


The curriculum will need to be adapted in both content and pace: it is pointless carrying on as if nothing had changed and offering counselling support as a bolt-on support. Teachers and students will need to feel they can talk about their experiences of the corona period rather than be under pressure to cover missed curriculum.

Students as citizens

 The Japanese experience is evidence of the ability of children to provide hope, encouragement and inspiration and reignite hope in those around them. The coronavirus lockdown period has restricted the opportunities for young people to carry out the kind of community support that their Japanese counterparts exhibited. However, there is now an opportunity to give our pupils a taste of the active citizenship and collaboration that so prepared Japanese students to volunteer their skills and time to the community at a time of crisis. We all see examples of children caring for others, and maybe we need to find a way to publicise this aspect of children and adolescents.

School openings

When schools in the UK closed to most students recently, I saw a moving YouTube video of staff at one school lining the corridors to cheer all students as they left the premises. This made me wonder why it took this crisis for such an amazing and powerful demonstration of support to take place. I suggest the following: At a preordained time on the first day back, parents line the road and cheer staff into the building. Then, staff in turn line the drive and cheer the students into the building. 

School culture

The reopening of our schools offers a great opportunity for change. When students return the majority will have had months out of the classroom. School leaders have options. Either they can make plans to return to a pre-corona normality, which will undoubtedly involve re-institutionalizing children into compliance and acceptance of the pre-corona culture, or they can look at the amazing collaboration that is proving so vital to the community during these difficult times, and plan to make that sense of collaboration and community a real feature of the school.

What are your thoughts? Do you have another viewpoint? What is your experience of collaborative decision-making? Please leave a comment below and start a discussion.

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