Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Earthquake drills

We have never had earthquake drills at any of the places I work now, and I hope some bright spark isn't inspired by the recent quakes (we had another little one last night) to make the suggestion that we should. The only thing they are good for is using up half an hour of class time. Of course, this can be a good thing if my lesson plan isn't working out, but mostly it's a waste of time.

At one place I used to work, we had earthquake drills now and again. In an earthquake, we were told, we had to shepherd our students out of the building to a prearranged spot, which was an open space on campus. I asked what the drill was in the classroom itself, and was told there wasn't any. I should get them out of the classroom and to the prearranged spot as quickly as possible.

There were three things that made this a really, really dumb idea.

1. My classrooms were on the sixth floor.
2. I had about 30 students per class.
3. An earthquake lasts about a minute, often less.

Apparently I was supposed to somehow shepherd 30 students down six flights of stairs and outside to the prearranged spot, during an earthquake, and I had about one minute to do it in.

Do the people who invent these drills actually think about what happens during an earthquake? Let's say there was a biggish one - say a lower five on the Japanese scale. On the sixth floor, this would be very scary indeed, as the building would sway and possibly windows would crack. The students would be freaking out, and the teacher (me), would be, too. Most likely I'd be paralysed with shock for the first few seconds at least. I'm no hero.

Say the earthquake went on for a minute, and I actually had time to herd the students out into the corridor (if they could stand up, that is) and into the stairwell (shooing them back from the lift - they always want to use the lift, I discovered in the drills) can you imagine the mess if there was a nasty jolt as they started down the stairs? Earthquakes do that sort of thing. Sway, sway, sway, BUMP! sway.

Taking them to the stairs in the middle of an earthquake would be the most stupid thing I could do. The only practical way of getting them out of the building in the time available would be to throw them out the window, and while it might seem like an attractive idea to their teacher on some days I don't think the university administration would be very impressed with their condition upon arrival.

I told my students, when we had those drills, that if there was a real earthquake they were to take shelter under the desks as far from the window as possible. After the shaking stopped they should head for the stairs, carefully, and hold hands, because that really does help you to feel steadier. I told them that while the worst would probably be over by then, they should be aware that aftershocks might follow, and that things might be in a mess. They should take their time and watch out for broken glass and other dangers, and take care of each other because their teacher was a certified chicken and might not be much help.

I asked them to imagine the building was swaying sickeningly. "Earthquake!" I shrieked, and froze, gripping my desk and staring at them with my mouth open, looking stupidly horrified.

"See?" I said. "What if I reacted like that? You need to know in advance what you should do."

They thought this was pretty funny, but even the dimmest bulb in the class could see the sense in being prepared for teacher meltdown during a crisis.