The recent flood in the Fitzroy Valley in the Kimberley in WA- and indeed across the top end- have highlighted the need for remote teacher awareness of some of the natural disasters you may face. Not to induce fear- but to help you prepare so you feel confident and prepared.
You are geographically isolated, limited supports and perhaps different disasters than you are used to from back home.
This blog post will cover- what to do during a natural disaster, but also how to support your students who have just experienced one when back in the classroom.
What to do if you are in community when a natural disaster happens?
If you are in a remote outback community and a natural disaster occurs, it may be difficult to access help or resources. It’s important to be prepared and have a plan in place in case of an emergency.
Here are some steps you can take to prepare for and respond to a natural disaster:
- Familiarise yourself with the emergency plan for your community and make sure you know what to do in case of a natural disaster. There might be a common meeting place, a community member in charge of communication (satellite phone, back up generator etc) and evacuation. Make sure you know what this is- either through your school or community.
- Keep an emergency supply kit on hand, including non-perishable food, water, a first aid kit, flashlights, wind up radio and any other supplies you may need in case you are unable to leave the community. It might also be useful to have a lockable fire proof, flood proof case for your important documents- some are able to be screwed down to prevent theft or floating away.
- Stay informed about weather conditions and any warnings that may be issued. This could be via your ABC local emergency channel, via your principal, TV or social media. In case of power outage, reception issues or TV issues- see if there is a community communications person to receive information from.
- Keep a list of emergency phone numbers such as State Emergency Services, local police direct, local clinic direct number, local volunteer fire fighters, airport etc. You should also have a school emergency communication tree which states who will contact who and when to make sure they are safe.
- If a natural disaster occurs, follow the community’s emergency plan and any instructions given by local authorities. If unsure of what this is reach out to your principal asap.
- Stay calm and try to keep other community members calm as well. Check in on your colleagues.
- If you need to evacuate, do so quickly and safely, following the community’s emergency plan. This might include helicopter, boat or plane. You may not be allowed to take a lot with you- see above re: flood/fire/theft case. Your emergency plan should include important things to take.
- If you are unable to evacuate, take shelter in a safe place, such as a designated shelter area or a room with no windows, location at higher ground- bathroom in the bath with a wet towel over is sometimes a safe space for a fire if stuck for example. Tell someone you are there (if you can).
- Let your principal and family know you are safe.
- Survival Kit Guide: https://www.redcross.org.au/globalassets/cms/emergency-services/preparedness/checklist-get-packing.pdf
- Australian Warning System: https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/resources/australian-warning-system/
- Flood advice: http://www.bom.gov.au/water/floods/document/What_todo_floods.pdf
- Fire Ready Kit: https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/before-and-during-a-fire/fire-ready-kit
- Bush Fire Plan: https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/before-and-during-a-fire/your-bushfire-plan
- Cyclone ready: https://www.dfes.wa.gov.au/hazard-information/cyclone/prepare
Remember to always prioritise the safety of yourself and others in the community during a natural disaster. It may also be helpful to establish a plan for checking on and helping neighbors, especially those who are elderly or have disabilities.
How to support our students after a natural disaster?
- Stay up to date with what happened in community- so you are aware of which students might have been impacted (although even one family impacted has big ripple effects through community), how they were impacted and the type of trauma they might have experienced.
- Seek advice and support from your administration team and Aboriginal Education Officers about how to best cater for your students in a locally and culturally responsive way.
- Acknowledge that relationships, brain health and strategies to support students may be needed as foundations when you are back in the classroom. Your students will have a lot of things that happened while you were away- starting with the fun, happy ‘what you did on the holidays’ tasks will likely not be appropriate.
- Create a safe and supportive environment. This will include allowing students to express their feelings and concerns and provide them with a sense of security and stability through check in circles, buddy systems, one-on-one or small group activities, connecting students with supports in class such as AEO. You might have a calm down corner or fiddle toys to support students feeling safe.
- Be flexible. Recognise that students may have different needs and be willing to adjust your teaching methods to accommodate those needs. This might need to include an IEP/IBP or mental health plan.
- Provide information. Keep students informed about the disaster and recovery efforts, as well as any available resources for support. With knowledge comes power. With knowledge comes hope that ot wont be like this for ever.
- Encourage self-care. Remind students to take care of themselves physically and emotionally. Provide opportunities for students to do this in your class/school with things like breakfast club, yoga or mindfulness, fun games and opportunities to connect. Give your students strategies to manage emotions back at home and in community too.
- Be aware of trauma triggers such as rain, the smell of smoke, loud noises, lightening and thunder, the sound of helicopters or sirens etc. Have a sensory box to support students- headphones, small bottles of scent or a smell pillow, weighted blankets.
- Offer opportunities for students to help others. Encourage students to volunteer and support their community in the disaster recovery efforts. You might do this as a class or school as well.
- Connect with families and other support systems. Communicate with families and other support systems to understand how they are coping and if they need any support.
- Provide counseling or therapy. Provide or connect students with counseling or therapy services if they are experiencing trauma or distress. This can be very hard in remote outback communities with no, limited, visiting mental health services. Your students should know they can talk with the local clinic, teachers, AEOs, school counsellor or chaplain if available. A good idea to have the hotline numbers for mental health lines on your wall, a wallet card for students to take any time they need. You might even call up the Kids Helpline and model with students what happens when they call as Holly-Ann Martin from Safe4Kids says in her podcast interview here.
- Watch for self-harm, suicide ideation and other concerns. Ask for professional development in this space for example: Mental Health First Aid or Gatekeeper Suicide Prevention Course.
Remember it is not just on you to support your students through this very challenging time. As teachers we are at risk of vicarious trauma so make sure you take time to seek support, share the load and look after yourself too.
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