Disasters, communities, schools, and teachers: Long after the cameras have gone

Professor Carol Mutch, University of Auckland / Waipapa Taumata Rau
Education Commissioner for the New Zealand Commission to UNESCO

Carol Mutch has spent the last decade researching the role of schools in disaster and crisis contexts. Her work has spanned six countries: New Zealand, Australia, Japan Vanuatu, Samoa and Nepal. She has studied earthquakes, tsunami, bushfires, cyclones, floods and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. Her over-arching research finding is that schools play a significant role in the response and recovery phases of traumatic community and national events. While this role is often taken for granted, it is under-recognised and under-acknowledged. Schools step up quickly and are still supporting students, families and communities long after the cameras have gone – and often to the detriment of staff’s physical and mental health.

As the northern half of Aotearoa NZ recovers from unprecedented flooding, schools are again readying themselves for welcoming back students who have might have experienced serious trauma and loss, some multiple times. Yet, each student will be welcomed back into an environment of care and compassion. Teachers will put aside their personal concerns and sensitively assess what and how students need to debrief and when they will be ready to return to the regular curriculum.

After musing about what she wished the wider public understood about what post-disaster situations add to school staff’s already heavy workloads, Carol penned this letter from a fictional parent in the current floods. It draws on real stories from teachers and parents who have contributed to her research over the years.

It is a tribute to all schools throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.

Thursday 2 February 2023

Dear Mrs Sulasi

I just wanted to let you know that we are in one of those evacuation centres because our house is a bit of a mess after the floods. I’m waiting for the assessors to check it to see if we can go home.

Thank goodness schools are reopening! I’m so grateful because I have to get onto the insurance company and it’s a bit stressful with the kids under my feet.

But I’m not just grateful because my kids can go back to school, I’m grateful to you and all the teachers in Auckland who will be there for them. Who will welcome them back with smiles.

It’s been a tough few years. This is the second time we’ve been flooded. And what about the Covid years! In and out of lockdown. Worrying about getting Covid – or not getting Covid.

But through all these times, you were there. All my children went through your classes. No matter how hard things got, you were there. Not just you, but the whole school. You know, school is not just about getting an education, it’s much more than that. It’s more like a community. A community where everyone knows you and cares about you.

I love this school. There’s always something going on – the school fair, camps, kapa haka, fia fia, sports days, book week… And I realise just how much of your own time you and all the other teachers put in. I didn’t like school but you all make school fun and the kids want to go and want to learn.

Talking of community, I want to say how amazing you all were during Covid. I didn’t know how we would cope with just one old computer. But you dropped off Chromebooks we could borrow and a parcel of paper and pens and other school things. But I couldn’t believe the next day, you also dropped off a box of groceries. I don’t know if I ever said thank you properly.

And then all that on-line teaching. You must have been up all night preparing those little videos and dreaming up those fun activities. It really took the stress off me because my youngest was only three then. But there were my kids making up a TikTok dance to share with the class or recording how many steps they walked around the back yard to see if they could walk the length of New Zealand.

Oh, by the way, the other thing I realised and never said was that you were probably trying to teach online while your own kids were at home. How did you manage? That’s like trying to do two jobs at once.

Sorry, this letter is going on a bit but I never got the chance to say thanks for everything – and here we are in another disaster. But I don’t need to worry now. The kids are safe with you. You really have a way of keeping them calm and knowing when the are ready to learn.

Anyway, did you get flooded? How is your house? You know, I don’t think that parents think about whether the teachers have got the same problems as them. They just see you front up with a smile on your face and look after their kids – no matter what’s going on in your life.

Wow. I’m a bit lost for words really, now that I think about it.

What can I say? Mrs Sulasi – we love you – and all the other teachers. You’re amazing!


Love from

Linda Williams (Dylan, Neesha and Rikki’s mum)

If you want to read more about Carol’s research on the role of schools, teachers, and educational leaders in disaster and crisis contexts, it can be found at these open access links:

Carol Mutch is a Professor of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland. Over her career, she has also been a teacher, teacher educator, policy advisor, educational leader, researcher and writer. She has published six books and over 100 academic articles and book chapters. She teaches and researches topics related to educational policy and curriculum, social studies and citizenship, and diversity and social justice. Her work on the role of schools in disaster response and recovery was awarded a University of Auckland research excellence medal. She is also the Education Commissioner for the National Commission for UNESCO.

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