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SocietyApril 23, 2019

What it was like to be a Christchurch primary teacher on March 15

Image: Getty Images
Image: Getty Images

‘I swallowed my fear because I’m a teacher. And it’s my job to protect the children in my care and school at all costs,’ writes Margie Askin-Jarden, deputy principal of a school in Ōtautahi Christchurch.

I didn’t plan on becoming a teacher. I wanted to be an educational psychologist. I dutifully completed my university degree, two-year teaching diploma and a three-year-teaching placement, all compulsory in the pathway to becoming a registered educational psychologist at the time.

It was during my three-year teaching placement I became captured by teaching as a career. It was like no other job I could imagine. I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children, I knew young people inspired me – but I had no idea just how much teaching would take over my life.

Teaching is so much more than how it is perceived. Some may think of teachers standing at the front of classrooms writing maths equations on a board. Some might picture a teacher sitting alongside a child as they attempt to unlock words on a page.

But what they wouldn’t be likely to picture is a teacher putting on a film for 65 nine and ten year-olds to watch, whilst asking them to sit quietly on the floor and keep away from the classroom windows. Would they see them gently calming children who have no idea what is happening at a mosque in their own community?

On 15 March, my role as a teacher, along with my colleagues, was to soothe, to calm, to support. I will admit there were moments I was afraid, as were my fellow teachers. But we knew we could not show fear.

Being a teacher is always putting your learners first. My own children weren’t with me, but I had faith and trust in their teachers – because we know what it’s like to put your school children first.

I swallowed my fear because I’m a teacher. And it’s my job to protect the children in my care and school at all costs. I was struck by the magnitude of what was happening around us; I was scared of the unknown, of what might happen – but like all teachers in my school, and around Canterbury that day, I knew what I needed to do.

I needed to protect and to lead.

We remained with our children and kept them calm and sheltered them from information and tried to give them the best four hours possible during that lockdown.

We worried for our own families but always kept the focus on the children with us.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like. You put every feeling you have aside so you can focus on the children in front of you. You know that teachers around the region are doing the same – it’s what you expect for your own children, and it is what you owe in return.

Some children watched the film. The younger kids played quietly. We had board games. Some children sat quietly and we reassured them and put them at ease.

They knew something was happening. They were asking “when can we go home?” And we had to remain upbeat while letting them know that we did not know. It was hard. But this is what being a teacher is. It’s knowing every single day you’re responsible for the emotional and physical wellbeing of the children in your care.

We didn’t know how long we would be in the lockdown. We knew we would stay as long as was needed, overnight if we had to – anything that would be asked of us for our kids.

Our principal, caretaker, and teacher aide delivered some food to every classroom.

We ate together, supporting each other, being what a school is: A community hub. A home away from home.

I do remember the great sense of relief when the last child was safely delivered to their parent that evening. As staff, we hugged and then went home to our own families. Finally.

An experience like this highlights the bond you have with your students. Teaching is not an occupation divorced of emotion, feelings and attachments.

It’s not like any other job. When your children are afraid, you feel it. You feel for them like you feel for your own children and you know your children’s teachers will be feeling for your children too.

You’re it for them in an experience like that. You’re all they have at the time. Christchurch teachers especially know that because of our years of enduring earthquakes – the fear continues and the fear from March 15 may continue too.

The trust and faith put in you to care for children, it’s both a privilege and a deep responsibility.

It’s priceless.

Teaching is priceless.

I’ve never been prouder, of my fellow colleagues and our profession.

Keep going!