New test for teachers as Japan's schools move to reopen
Schools reopen this week after tsunami-related delays. Japan's teachers are likely to face new demands in helping students and their families move forward.
Kiyo Hiratsuka is on the longest spring vacation of his life. The 12-year-old student was supposed to start middle school on April 8.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, he's spending his time reading comics, drawing cartoons, and playing board games in a classroom in his former elementary school, which he now shares with 312 other Ishinomaki residents left homeless by the colossal tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan last month. School gets a delayed start on April 21, but Kiyo isn't sure if he's excited or anxious.
"I have no idea what it'll be like," he says, slouched on a blanket next to his mother.
For Kiyo and thousands of other kids living in a 250-mile-long swath of northeastern Japan affected by last month's disaster, school has taken on a whole new meaning.
The tsunami slammed the coast on March 11, just as the school day was wrapping up, so many students took refuge inside the sturdy buildings. Some stayed for days, others for weeks.
Teachers became caretakers and classrooms became homes.
Schools and teachers have always played an important social role in Japan, but now they are gearing up as essential actors in helping their students – and their communities – move forward after the disaster.
"In Japan, teachers are expected to counsel students about emotional or behavioral issues and actively interact with families," says Miyoko Ozawa, director of the Sakura Education Research Center in Chiba. Now, she says, that role is crucial to recovery, and it's no easy job.
As of April 11, at least 2,669 people had been confirmed dead and 15,166 homeless in Ishinomaki, a coastal fishing and manufacturing city of 162,822. Nationwide, the Ministry of Education has estimated that out of the more than 13,300 killed, 207 elementary and middle-school students died, but city officials say they don't yet know what the figure is for Ishinomaki.
Many in town do agree that if teachers hadn't stepped in to lead school evacuations and organize shelters after the disaster, more children would have died.
"The teachers really saved the kids," says Yoshiei Hiratsuka, Kiyo's father, who rode out the tsunami at home while his son stayed at school.
Hideki Toyohara is the head teacher at nearby Okaido Elementary, one of 31 elementary and junior high schools converted into shelters in the town. He was at school when the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. He and other teachers led students to the gym. Then, when the tsunami warning came, the staff moved them and other neighbors up to the second and third floors of the school. They stayed there – without water, electricity, or food – for about three days.
"For a while, no one could get to us. It was freezing cold, so the teachers tore down curtains to use as blankets, handed out gym clothes for people to wear, and distributed some snacks we happened to have around," says Mr. Toyohara.