Akemi Ishii, Takeo Maeda and Keiji Ohara / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
Primary school teachers in disaster-hit areas continue to make extraordinary efforts on behalf of their young students.
Many teachers took it upon themselves to confirm the safety of their students after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. While also helping the management of evacuation centers, they have paid careful attention to children’s mental conditions.
But a teacher who experienced the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake warned that authorities should do their best to avoid placing extra burdens on teachers, such as nonessential clerical work, and let them concentrate on teaching their students.
In Minami-Sanrikucho, Miyagi Prefecture, all public primary and middle schools that did not suffer major damage in the disaster are used as shelters for evacuees. It is true for the Shizugawa Primary School, where almost all of the school’s 33 teachers have helped sort relief supplies and run the shelter.
Relatives of some teachers went missing in the disaster, but Keiichi Kato, 57, principal of the school, said it had not affected the teachers’ dedication to their students.
“All of them have put the children before their private matters,” said Kato. He said three of his teachers had become ill due to overwork.
The teachers have also organized informal study sessions so children do not fall behind in their studies, and make their own original worksheets for their students.
When electricity was restored to the school on April 25, Yutaka Yamauchi, a 47-year-old teacher, was leading a study session in one of the classrooms. Since March 11, the clock in the room had been stopped at 2:46 p.m., the time the powerful earthquake struck. When the hands started moving for the first time since then, the children cheered, “Wow! The electricity’s back!”
On April 30, during the Golden Week holidays, teachers gave their time to clean classrooms and sorted relief goods stored at the school. On Tuesday, the school officially began its new academic year.
Money no object
Of the 267 teachers at primary and middle schools in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, 75 lost their homes in the disaster.
Tomoko Ono, 33, a teacher at Kamaishi Higashi Middle School, lost her house to the tsunami. She escaped without even her purse or cell phone.
She spent the following days visiting different evacuation centers to confirm the safety of her students. By the time she made her first visit to where her house had stood, it was about two weeks after the disaster.
“I felt as if I’d been working nonstop, around the clock,” she recalled.
Kamaishi Higashi Middle School teachers pooled 180,000 yen of their own money to buy a secondhand car so they could share it, along with a few other cars they borrowed from relatives, to visit students’ homes and check in on them.
Damage to the school building forced the teachers to use a library at Koshi Middle School as their temporary staff room. There was only one landline telephone, so to make it easier to contact students and parents, the teachers again used their own money to buy cell phones.
A senior official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry was surprised to hear the teachers had spent their own money.
“They bought a car for school activities?” he asked, adding there is no system to reimburse the teachers.
Eight students at Isobe Primary School in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, lost parents in the tsunami.
Teachers from the school took turns staying overnight at Soma municipal general welfare center, where the children were staying, to care for them for nearly a month after the disaster.
Reiko Ashiguchi, 42, was one of those teachers. She studied with the children and made origami cranes from newspapers with them, and worries about their well-being.
“Some of the kids haven’t fully processed the reality of the disaster or their grief over losing their parents,” she said.
The education ministry and prefectural boards of education plan to dispatch more school counselors to disaster-hit areas, but the local teachers who have built trusting relationships with their students will continue to play an important role in the grieving and healing process.
Hideto Takinouchi, a primary school teacher in Hyogo Prefecture who undertook training in children’s mental health care after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, has visited schools in disaster-hit areas in Miyagi Prefecture. He said it is important for administrators to reduce teachers’ clerical work as much as possible, so they can concentrate on their students.
“If teachers have to do everything, they’ll burn out,” he said.