Today’s post is the latest by Mick Haining. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily endorsed by the Association
Here’s what to do in an emergency, according to WikiHow:
 Remain calm.  Seek additional help.  Determine the nature of the emergency  Know that sudden changes can be emergencies.  Be alert for human-caused emergencies.  Assess the immediate threat.  Remove yourself from danger.  Help others leave a hazardous area.
It seems to me that, until we have colonised another planet and can efficiently transport around seven billion people there, that advice won’t be much use in what we are calling the climate and ecological emergency. This emergency is different.
It isn’t different, for example, because we have already determined the nature of the emergency nor because we can’t help others leave the hazardous area. It’s different because of the time frame. This is not the Titanic hitting an iceberg, Hurricane Dorian or 9/11 – this is a much slower, more insidious and vastly more cataclysmic emergency that may not seriously nor directly affect anybody reading these words. For humanity as a whole, however, it is probably the greatest threat it has ever faced.
It’s different, too, because it is not confined to a single location unless you consider the entire globe as that. Some parts of the world already feel its consequences. From Mali to the Maldives, Goa to Guatemala and Arizona to the Arctic, many people who live there now know this is an emergency. As do the inhabitants of Fairbourne in North Wales, the village which has been told by its local council that it will be “decommissioned” within 30 years because of sea level rise.”
This is different because the weight of the word ‘emergency’ has been altered. There is not the same sense of immediacy in it and that somehow seems to weaken it. We associate rapidity and disruption with emergency not with getting up in the morning, going to work and watching our favourite TV programmes. But an emergency of any kind disrupts – as Naomi Klein puts it, “this changes everything”. And that includes teaching.
She doesn’t, of course, literally mean everything. Apart from night still becoming day and leaves being green, we continue to breathe, eat and communicate as before. There will be changes that we cannot detect in our daily lives, too – we can’t instantly see that the level of CO2 in our atmosphere has reached 420 parts per million, nor that, at our current rate of increase, we would hit the catastrophic and irreversible level of 450 ppm not within a few centuries, not within a few decades but, according to current trends, within a few years. Make no mistake about it – this is an emergency.
Many of us are familiar with the mime of an air steward before a plane takes off which tells us what to do in the event of the plane malfunctioning and the vast majority of us have fortunately never experienced a malfunction serious enough to necessitate putting that knowledge into practice. They are teaching us what to do in order to survive should the worst happen. In the 1960s in the US, pupils at elementary schools were drilled in what to do in the event of a nuclear attack – it’s doubtful whether crouching under your desk would have afforded much protection though. In both cases, the teaching reflected a ‘what if’ scenario – for climate change there is no ‘if’. It is happening. Now.
Faced with an actual emergency, WikiHow advises us to “remain calm”. That is still valid here because stress inhibits the brain’s ability to plan complex action, to think clearly. Emergency responders must remain calm in order to communicate effectively for appropriate action to be taken by those affected in the emergency. Well… that’s all of us. Keep calm and carry on – but how?
What information, what instructions, what mimes or channels of communication should teachers bring to bear in this different but colossal emergency? Is the information that is provided for the purpose of increasing awareness, prompting action or a combination of both? What action can be taken, what action should be taken by the students being taught?
For those of you who have seen the film, ‘The Poseidon Adventure’, you’ll know that the survivors took an unconventional route to safety. Since their ship ‘world’ had been turned upside down, they headed upwards – towards the hull of the upturned vessel. What, in schools, if the route to safety is blocked by the administration itself? What if the route to safety is being impeded by the Government? What unconventional routes might teachers need to advocate in order to improve the survival chances of their students?
Emergency responders need more than calmness to deal with an emergency. They need knowledge, decisiveness and sometimes courage, too… walking into a burning building with every piece of protective equipment working does not guarantee walking back out again. The knowledge is out there, teachers usually practise being calm and decisive every day but what form of courage might they need to find in this emergency on behalf of their students?
Their students need to be reassured and they need to be given the confidence that they can make a difference which will help them, sometimes by doing something uncomfortable or undesired – how many, for example, would willingly give up eating meat? The latter involves a problem of perception, too. Just as we sometimes cannot sense this emergency, emerging from it cannot be as palpable as reaching a life-raft or climbing out of a mangled car. How on earth do you convince children, if their world is more or less still ‘normal’ at the moment that, when they become octogenarians,
that they will have ‘survived’?
This is the dilemma that educators face. Before an emergency so colossal, so unprecedented yet, in so many ways, so vague, what means can they find to tackle it? Teachers are very well equipped with skill and certain areas of knowledge. What they communicate, particularly in this emergency, has to use as much of those qualities as possible. Sometimes even what has an impact is down to a single word or tone of voice. I recall a disastrous mistake made by a colleague years ago who had arranged a drama lesson with a friend hidden in a store cupboard who burst out as a gunman and ‘shot’ the teacher. The mistake was that the students had not been told in advance that whatever might happen would be part of the drama. After the genuine panic had been dealt with – that took ages – one student said that he had thought it might be part of the drama until one specific moment. At the point of being ‘shot’, the teacher swore… “and teachers don’t swear”, said the boy.
In an emergency, there needs to be changes of pace, focus and tactic. The arrival of a pathogen in a tree prompts even fungal networks to inform tree roots which then urge the tree and others to begin to produce antibodies for its protection. We humans have schooled ourselves to move aside when we hear a siren. There are no sirens and no flashing blue lights to signal the climate and ecological emergency. But we still need to quicken, to devote apt resources and to modify existing behaviour in order to mitigate the consequences of what has already begun. Confining environmental education to geography or science is inadequate – it needs to be everywhere and every day in the curriculum. It needs to be delivered with optimism and faith in the extraordinary ability of humans to solve problems. It needs to be now. As so many young people have already declared on their placards, there is no planet B.
Mick Haining has taught French, maths and (mostly) drama in schools in England, and is now actively retired. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org