Teachers did not show fear during quake

Christchurch Earthquake - 22 February 2011 Shops on Manchester Street between Armagh and Gloucester Streets PHOTO : GEOFF SLOAN

Ten thousand education staff became first responders for Christchurch’s 150,000 school students and pupils during the February 22, 2011, earthquake.

Not a single child died on school property.

Canterbury University health and human development senior lecturer Veronica O’Toole interviewed 20 teachers, researching their ability to regulate emotions in a disaster, leading to some insights.

Teachers called on all their skills to attend to children’s safety, Dr O’Toole said.

“For all the teachers I interviewed, their priority was making sure they did not show their fear to prevent any further distress for the children and students in their care. They remained on duty until the last child was reunited with their caregivers.”

Christchurch teachers’ emotion regulation, goals and strategies for their immediate fear in the first moments of the earthquake have been compared internationally to first responders.

“Strategies teachers normally use to present a calm and professional image underpinned the regulation of these teachers’ fears at the time of the earthquake,” Dr O’Toole said.

While some emotion regulation strategies may be effective in the moment, they can be less suitable longer term.

Experiencing intense fear at the time of a trauma can have negative emotional impacts in both professional and untrained first responders later on, Dr O’Toole said.

Ongoing stress factors related to increased job demands, even in the normal course of events, can lead to teacher burnout and attrition.

“Although this may be moderated by teachers’ positive emotions and love of their work, when occurring simultaneously with negative emotions – which was also evident in the Christchurch teachers – their internal skills and resources can become depleted over time, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.”

The findings of this research are an important reminder of the significant role played by teachers during the earthquake and throughout the prolonged aftershock sequence, Dr O’Toole said.

Suggestions for teachers:

•During daily reflections, try taking a different perspective of different events or try changing thoughts from a negative to a positive interpretation. Then review the emotional response to the revised thoughts. This cognitive reappraisal can be practised and learned as part of improving our emotional lives, and reducing emotional exhaustion.

•In disaster planning, under guidance first thoughts and revised thoughts could be included in rehearsals and drills to anticipate the presence of emotions in the immediate and prolonged aftermath.

•Finally, the more aware Government and management can be of the potential for a natural disaster to increase job demands and contribute to teachers’ emotional exhaustion and burnout, the better the support that can be given to teachers.


•Consideration of a
social emotional learning follow-up programme
for first responder teachers.

•Incorporating learning more about emotions and research-informed practical skills to manage teachers’ ongoing emotions, health.