Disaster Talks

Episode 1 -Looking back

October 19, 2022 The Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network (ACATLGN) Season 1 Episode 1
Disaster Talks
Episode 1 -Looking back
Show Notes Transcript

We can learn a lot with the benefit of hindsight. 
It's hard to do everything perfectly on a normal day, let alone in the midst of an intense event like a disaster. When we look back, it's common to see ways it could have been done differently. 
In this episode you'll hear from education leaders who've been through it themselves, and share reflections on what they wished they knew before their communities experienced a disaster,  and what they learnt from having gone through it.

Disaster Talks Episode 1 - Transcript

In this episode:

  • Laura Gooyers-Bourke (Host) –Project Officer ACATLGN
  • Michelle Roberts (Co-host) –Psychologist, Director ACATLGN
  • Fran Heath –Principal, Corryong College
  • Christine McKimmie –Teacher, former Assistant Principal Corryong College
  • Warren Sinclair –Assistant Principal, Corryong College
  • Sinan Kerimofski –Collegiate Principal, Dept. of Education WA, former Principal Margaret River PS

Series Audience Purpose - Learn from the stories of peers and students about how best to support my community through a current or future event, and beyond - skill development and emotional preparedness

Episode Audience Purpose - Practical and real examples from leaders and students who have been through a disaster and what they’ve learnt from it. Honesty and authenticity and interesting stories and how not to be blindsided.

Themes - A school’s experience; tips to prepare; the long tail of recovery


0:00:04 (Laura)
Disaster Talks
is produced by the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network at the Australian National University in collaboration with UNICEF Australia, and made by FACTS.

We know that being a leader in a school community is more than busy.
You’re juggling so much day to day - everyday. 
And with COVID it’s not become any easier.

 But the reality is that if a disaster strikes your community, you won’t only be doing your day job, you’ll quickly become a community leader.

 In this series we’re going to share some ways for you to prepare for that time in case it does come to you.

 From disaster experts and people who have been through it themselves, this is Disaster Talks.


0:00:52 (Michelle)
Hi I’m Michelle Roberts, I’m a psychologist, teacher and the director of the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network at the Australian National University.

My first experience of disaster was in the ash Wednesday bushfires when I was a teacher and bushfire impacted my school.

Since then I’ve been passionate about assisting children to have the best chance of surviving a disaster in the best way possible.


0:01:02 (Laura)
Hi I’m Laura Gooyers-Bourke and I’m the project officer at the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network at the Australian National University.


0:01:12 (Michelle)
Ok, before we get started, I want to let you know that this episode deals with some strong emotions, we touch on the topics of suicide and the intensity of disasters including bushfires. 

This content could be upsetting for some people including children who are listening. If this raises any issues for you at all, there is always somewhere to turn. You can call Lifeline on thirteen eleven fourteen, that’s 13 11 14.

You can also visit the ACATLGN website where we have resources and links to services to support yourself, your family and children. That’s earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au. Again, the ACATLGN website is early trauma grief dot ANU dot EDU dot AU.

You can also speak to your doctor - they will be able to refer you to someone in your community that can offer support. 


0:02:06 (Laura)
Corryong is a tiny town - around 1,300 people live here, and it’s beautiful. 
It sits at the foot of the Snowy Mountains.
It’s a stunning vista that was damaged by massive fires on the eve of 2020.

I’m here for a few days to meet with some of the school leaders who want to share what they learnt from leading a school during and after a disaster.

Whether you’re in a city or town, whether you’re at risk of floods, fires or cyclones, what these people have learnt should be helpful to you if you are ever faced with leading a school community through a big event.

Over this episode, you’ll meet the principal of this school, Fran Heath; the school leader who was in charge through the New Year’s Eve fires, Chrissie McKimmie; and a teacher and current leader, Warren Sinclair.

While they’ve all been through the same disaster, they each have different experiences and perspectives. 

It’s normal for all of us to have our own response to the same event.
Our life experiences, and how we’re feeling generally have an impact on how we work through a disaster. 

We can learn different things from each of these people.
To start with, let’s meet Fran Heath - Principal of Corryong College, to get a sense of what the town has been through.


0:03:19 (Fran)
It's been hit with some really vast I guess challenges in over many many years and that's from drought, floods - now bushfires and with covid the remote access was already tricky enough but with covid that's that's really had some complexities on top of an already traumatised community. 


0:03:45 (Laura)
This intense run of events has come with some particular challenges for the school, and the school leaders.

As with most communities, the school is more than a place of learning, it’s a community hub, and during the fires, it became an evacuation centre and distribution point for supplies.

As a principal, Fran was suddenly one of the key people coordinating the community’s recovery - something it’s very hard to prepare for completely.


0:04:10 (Fran)
(laughs) I sort of laugh with a bit of insanity, it was definitely different actually nothing that I had expected. You’re still doing your leadership but in a different capacity that you would not expect yeah yeah.

So I had calls from the council and different military services about ‘ok we're gonna send these people in, what do you want them to do?’ Now that's a bit of a tricky question when you think - principal to ‘ok what’s the emergency response here?’ So it was really really quickly looking at what is the need? There was no power and so immediately I just like ‘Ok water.’ You know when we need water here, we've got a lot of people in the emergency recovery area we don't have the facilities here we need, we need toilets, we need more toilets and just trying to act on your feet.

There was a lot of families that I knew that didn't have support so it was talking to police and saying ‘can you please check on particular families’ this is where they live using student records as, you know, support for welfare checks.


0:05:28 (Laura)
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the intensity of this situation.
Fran was suddenly not only a school leader, she was one of the people leading this community through a disaster that was absolutely devastating.

She wasn’t alone however, as with any school there’s a leadership team supporting the Principal. One of the leaders at Corryong College is Chrissie McKimmie.

She was leading during the actual fire event while Fran was caught fighting other fires in another state.


0:05:55 (Chrissie)
So we were all together at Christmas and yeah, very very dry and I remember the news reporter highlighting the importance of being very careful in the next following days because the conditions were going to be very extreme, and my son is a firefighter, so he was fighting the fires -at the very beginning and he…I noticed at about 2:00 the smoke coming over our house and dropping the dead leaves on the house there was completely clear blue skies with a streak of smoke directly over our house and then he rang and said ‘mum it's going to be here, tonight.’ so we quickly put all the sprinklers on and got everything packed with the essentials in the car and I went into school because I actually had this feeling that ‘I think we are the relief centre’ and we have not practise being a relief centre or the place of last resort so I quickly raced in and saw that was open there was a police officer here. 

We were at the um school watching cos we can see our farm from school so we were watching and constantly in contact you know “are you ok?” “Are you still ok?” and my husband “yep we’ve saved our house, yep we've just saved the cow shed, we're all alive.” so I did have constant contact with him.

I guess when we were at school we were hearing about… I could see where the fires were burning as we're watching and each time I was thinking ‘Oh my god, I haven't seen them here yet’ and yeah the relief when they walked up the school driveway was huge.


0:07:57 (Laura)
So just thinking about… you mentioned never the school never having to act as a relief centre or you know be that emergency hub in a disaster before. What was your role in all of that and how was it different from the role you thought you might have in a situation like that?


0:08:19 (Chrissie)
I didn't have any expectations prior to turning up, although you know, I knew that being the AP and there's most people go elsewhere during the Christmas holidays I thought ‘I'm not sure actually who else is going to be here from school’. The police officer wasn't from town, didn't know anybody and when I turned up we had a Shire lady and the Chaplain in town or pastor, the police pastor in town, so and then an old teacher along with her husband who was a fire - he used to do the radios on the fire station, so together I guess my job was whenever they ask for something I had to find that in the, in the school grounds. So open up more classrooms, get more chairs, wind out the mats so kids could sleep on and then the pastor would call things in, like mattresses. She got hold of some, so just kept opening up all areas in the school making sure ill people had a room, kids were all down A block corridor, class rooms were set-up for families who had kids that needed to sort of run around a bit, finding water.

It was pretty much just running around constantly trying to find things for different people cos we didn't have water setup, we didn't have anything ready to go for an emergency centre other than lots of rooms.

But yeah after that it was just catering for food, for the next couple days.


0:10:07 (Laura)
So it sounds like the school became the really practical hub of necessities in the community?


0:10:15 (Chrissie)
I think so, people did criticise it after which was a bit sort of ‘gosh, we did the best we could.’ and if we ever practise it maybe it would have been a better thing but I still think it's the best place to go because it's got so many rooms.


0:10:36 (Laura)
These fires were devastating, hundreds of thousands of hectares were burnt - and landscapes were decimated. The whole community was impacted.

And as Chrissie touched on there, the school leaders are both grappling with their own experiences while also being part of a core group of people who are leading the recovery of the disaster.


0:10:56 (Michelle)
This balance between being a leader and being a person impacted by a disaster is not unique to school leaders, and it’s not unique to fires.

There’s not much we can do to avoid this juggle, but we can prepare for it.

Having plans in place to prepare for events, knowing who will take on what role in an event, and having relationships with other community leaders in place, these things will help you to help your community, and will help you to find the space to manage your own recovery.


0:11:23 (Fran)
You're already a leader within the community and so it’s you take on that responsibility of checking in with the other leaders, whether it is the Emergency Management whether it's the health department, whether it's even even some of the you know Football Club presidents because they were, they were looking at how can they help. It was about going to each to the recovery hubs, to the relief centres where there was food been delivered and saying “right ok, what do you need? How can we get it?” and then delivering goods out to the farms. With the army that came it's quite extraordinary that all these people come but they don't really know what to do so it's a matter of thinking ‘ok well we got a lot of cattle out there’ and I knew teachers that were on farms and I said “you need to get in contact with these particular families, they’re going to need fencing, they need support and then they will actually direct you to other families that are going to need that same support.” so knowing… being being in the hub of the community really and that's that's that's what I state with education in rural community you are the hub and you have a knowledge that spans across the whole community and the broader community of knowing who would require what help. 

And then on the other hand you've got your social and emotional really, really harsh times so a lot of staff you’re checking in on your staff to sort of see ‘oh my gosh, are they burnt out? Are they not burnt out? Where are they in this situation?’ so it was checking in on all of them and seeing what their needs were and seeing if we can get them services because my fear was that we are going to start back at school and I'm not going to have a workforce and these kids are going to need it. So there's that urgency around checking in on everyone and making sure that they're nurtured and they're supported and they’re going to be strong enough to return, which also meant that ‘are their properties ok?’ and what, what does that look like for them.


0:13:41 (Laura)
You may have disaster agencies like the Red Cross, you may have the defence force or the SES crews from other regions or states arriving, and they don’t know exactly what to do. They will ask you how they can help, and that coordination in itself is overwhelming.


0:13:56 (Fran)
You need someone to actually reflect with to say “right this is what I've got, these are the concerns that I'm having, this is what I‘m thinking about putting into play” tell me, question me about these. Because you, you can get lost in how many supports and it's fantastic all these mental health supports will want to come and help you but it doesn't mean that they're all appropriate for your context or your school and you've got to be really picking and choosy and if you've got someone in the area of mental health that can give you that guidance then you lap them up and you have them by your side, yeah. 


0:14:38 (Laura)
I think that's a really good point and really good advice for other school leaders who are listening. It's not the first time we've heard of how overwhelming that inundation of support immediately after an event can be and in other situations you know we've heard the the need for gatekeepers and for school leaders to sort of protect the school community from from the the people who are knocking at the door and just having the ability to take that space to think clearly and prioritise the needs of the school rather than just taking what’s on offer.


0:15:20 (Fran)
You'll have so many people donating things, which is you know you’re so grateful and you’re humbled by it, but you think ‘oh we don’t actually need this. Oh my goodness how many coloured pencils can I have? how many?’ and it's such a beautiful gesture but I actually had to say to a lot of them “thank you so much, we are really humbled by this gesture, however we actually don't don't need these at the moment and this isn't what's going to benefit our students but what would benefit…” and you actually write that list, write what is it that will actually benefit your students. 

We had because the evacuation centre was here, it was about actually changing the context of that centre, because when the students first came back they didn't want to go in that building, it was terrifying. So we were thinking ‘we actually need to get it cleaned up, we actually need to get it beautified a bit. We need to make some other beautiful areas, put some murals up’ because everything was just looking really unattractive and it’s a very old school so let’s just leave it at that. Usually you’ve got this old school sitting with a with a backdrop of this absolutely stunning Mountains but we had this really old school sitting with a backdrop of black, brown, burnt to the ground, trees and it was terrible.

I think we’re all very hopeful people and we all feel very connected to the land. We, I'm Koorie, so that's really important to me but it is still very, very important to all of our rural community.


0:17:20 (Laura)
The fires in Corryong happened in the summer holidays, so the school wasn’t under pressure to open straight away. But it was only a few weeks until term was back.

And then there is a whole new balance to strike between creating a normal environment for students, coordinating the ongoing physical recovery and creating space for staff, students and families to face their emotional recovery process.


0:17:42 (Fran)
So we had, we had a new building that was meant to open and of course that that couldn't open at all, but we’d already lost our junior campus so we had all of our F to 4 students coming up to what was then known as the senior campus and thinking ‘oh my goodness, where are we going to put them?’ so we had to and then knowing the state of the school was horrible. It looked absolutely woeful, it was covered in ash, it stunk. There was, because we had so many people in the relief centre we had all the toilets broken and and not by malice at all, it just couldn't handle the 600 people that were in there. You know, we had 300 students and around 50 staff… definitely not 600 at once and with animals as well, so there was a really big clean-up to be had. So you you’re contacting different services and the department would contact you and put you in communication with other services. 


0:18:50 (Chrissie)
It was pretty much just getting kids back to normal, trying to be as normal as we possibly could.

There was about 5 kids that lost their houses so I don't know, making sure they had computers and you know, they weren't ok but making sure they were functioning ok, had the resources if they needed to talk to somebody. Kids need, some kids, lots of kids who had emotional, social challenges getting making sure they had someone to turn up to.

There was probably 5 of us who are married to farmers who own farms. And we just had to forget the farm and come back to work. I think we had 10 days with power, that we could try and get your household back to normal before school went back. I know a few teachers, like the teachers that were burnt out were a bit shell shocked that they actually had to come back to work so quickly, that was a challenge. In a sense it was probably the right thing to do but I think now 2 years later, everyone has actually burnt out. Who was that, if I think about the five staff you are actually I think are on the borderline of just taking inevitable leave it's probably the five staff that really had their farms burnt out.


0:20:35 (Fran)
One of the things that I never expected as well as the delay in trauma. I’d always read about it and researched about it and even working with children. 

But when you're looking at educational staff it's so hard for them to well it’s so hard to help them work through things because it takes time. And when you're in a position where you're presenting to people everyday they're standing up in front of their class and they're being this strong strong person and they're trying to engage kids and trying to work with students that are also very traumatised and fearful. They don't get to actually work on themselves.

And over 2 years you see that that wearing down, that fatigue and there's nothing left in in the bucket you know, and that's it's heartbreaking to see phenomenal teachers just so worn out.

But I almost think that having them come back, it was too quick. They didn’t get time to work through anything but what do you do? You’ve got a school to run. So um yeah it was tricky, really really tricky. I think that’s the hardest thing and the biggest wake up call I’ve had.

0:22:07  That staff are going to need so much support and if there's an ability or a way that you can lighten their load. If you can get more teaching staff in, just to even try and take some classes off them, then do it. It’s so necessary and their processing time is not up to what they normally are. They're not able to multitask, they're not able to, you know look at their professional development and also be teaching curriculum - it’s like we always say, students regress but so do adults, just as much.


0:22:52 (Michelle)
I experienced the 2009 Victorian fires in a school environment. I was the psychologist at a school where my husband was also the Principal, so I’ve not only worked in this field, I’ve experienced it first hand.

Disasters bring all sorts of emotional and physical responses and relationships can change drastically in the aftermath of a fire or a flood.


0:23:15 (Fran)
Out of fear and out of grief is anger and with that is then breakdown of relationships and it’s this vicious cycle in the community with all organisations with all just community in general.

A really big reminder for leaders after devastation in their schools is that parents will come to you with angst and it can be quite contentious, that can be quite confronting. But if you allow them just to be heard you’ll notice that it will be their absolute grief around what role they feel that they're not playing in their family and it's usually a guilt thing, and if you can hear them out it's not usually an attack on you or your school, it's a call out for help. 

It’s only just been of recent that parents can come into school but it's really hard taking that step and it's really hard for a staff as well to open that door because they’re feeling so vulnerable. They’re so exhausted “Am I teaching ok? Am I teaching well? Gosh, I'm not remembering like I usually do.” The kids are regressing, they’re not as engaged as they were and whilst we know that after trauma you’ve got to simplify things and get back to routine structure and really pointed learning so it's not this big deep deep pool of knowledge, that’s actually realy hard for teachers to do because it's like we're asking them to dumb themselves down or you know and for them that's a bit of a drop in their pride of being great, great teachers so then managing that with staff emotionally is tricky and some manage differently.

0:25:00 It's really trying to get an understanding between everyone, getting an understanding that everyone's perception is their reality and everyone's emotional state is their reality. 


0:25:13 (Michelle)
As humans we’re not all carbon copies of each other, we’re complex and different. So what one person needs is not the same as another.

That's the same, or maybe even more acute after a big disaster event.

Some people will need a little more time than others to process what they’ve experienced, and that’s not always directly linked to what they saw or went through.

Someone may have been out of town during the event but it might have triggered a past trauma. It’s important you don’t presume what each member of your team needs.


0:25:41 (Laura)
There is no right or wrong way to feel after a disaster.
Each of your staff may process their experiences very differently, and what they need can also change over time.

Warren Sinclair was a teacher at the time of the fires, now he’s an Assistant Principal of the school. He saw this diversity of needs in teachers - and in students.

26:03 (Warren)
I think for a lot of us we wanted just to get back to normal, and but there was a lot of stuff that everyone else wanted to do in the school. I felt like there was a point where everyone got tired of talking about it and having another group come up and tell us how traumatic it was going to be, and how difficult. For me I just wanted to be able to go in and take my class and try and work with kids that way. 


0:26:35 (Laura)
I guess that kind of touches on the balance between getting back to normal routine and allowing yourself and the kids the time they need to to work through things and and heal a little bit. 


0:26:49 (Warren)
Especially and this is where my experience, for some of others, three of four of us were wiped out, so for them to come back would have been a lot more challenging than for me to come back. So I hadn’t lost anything, I just had that experience, and had to see my friends have that experience. And the kids were the same, there was kids that mightn’t have even been in Corryong when it all happened or might have left before it all, and would have been town kids who again, didn't lose anything physically but then were kids who were fighting fires themselves - they were out protecting their property, saving their property, senior kids, kids in year 9, year 10 that were even younger sometimes. So for them the different experiences or difference in experience would have definitely impacted different people in terms of, were they ready to come back?


0:28:00 (Warren)
There was a lot of staff meetings and there was a few student groups with people coming and talking. Some kids might have got stuff out of them, so it's always important because it’s important for some, but you looked at a lot of kids and they just didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I think we need to be weary of how much we try and sometimes push saying “No you need to, you need to talk” for some kids that’s, and for me I’d not be one to talk about it. I like to just deal with it my way, not how other people think you should.


0:28:44 (Laura) 
Yeah that’s a good reminder for everyone that you know, your personal process is your own personal process and that doesn't necessarily mean talking about it all the time or working through it very outwardly.


0:29:02 (Warren)
Yeah and I think that’s, there’s people that need to work with it outly and talk about it and that’s why it’s important to have those options as well, but there’s certainly plenty of people that that’s not, dealing with it is getting on with it maybe and that’s how they get things back to whatever normal is possible, is the best way.

0:29:29 (Laura)
I just want to give a heads up here that we’re about to touch on the topic of suicide. If this could be challenging for you, you can skip forward five minutes.

The thing to keep in mind here is that these fires didn’t stand alone as an event.

They came on the back of a relentless drought that had already tested the farming community and pushed it to its breaking point.

And only a few months after the fires, of course, there was COVID - which had a massive impact on all that drive to get things back to normal, because as we all know normal was a whole different thing in 2020.

But before COVID, the town was also rocked by another devastation.
Only four weeks after the fires, on the day Chrissy’s daughter was on her way to university, they got the news that one of her former classmates had died by suicide.


0:30:17 (Chrissie)
So that was worse than the fires really, it was definitely worse than the fires but it was a tragedy after a tragedy.


0:30:28 (Laura)
That’s really hard for a small community where everyone is so close and you kind of alluded to this a few times in there about how difficult it is to balance moving on, moving forward and trying to move forward because you know, getting back to things like routine and stability and predictability for the kids as is what we knows is best for them following hard times like that but it's very hard and it's hard as adults to get ourselves to move forward while balancing those emotions at the time as well. 


0:31:08 (Chrissie)
Yeah I think a lot of staff - that was crushing and we all put on a brave face and we all move on and acknowledge their grief and give lots of cuddles and but we do keep moving on and I guess that's very sad for a lot of people but it's just the way we have to do to keep going.


0:31:43 (Fran)
You know, the bushfires broke us but the deaths that we had in the community, it was really hard. And you know one of the things that I think is really beautiful about our school community here is that we didn’t hold that back from students, you know when we had to do announcements around, around the deaths of our beautiful young people, it was you couldn't hold it together. You cried in front of them and it was, they were fantastic and it was so good for them to see that we’re real too. I think like you’ll notice now a lot of the kids go call all of us by our first name, and I think that's because really we have shown them our vulnerabilities and we have had to go through grief together.


0:32:38 (Laura)
Even hearing discussions around suicide grief and loss can trigger feelings in all of us.

If this discussion has raised any issues for you at all, it’s important to talk through what you’re feeling. You can call Lifeline on thirteen eleven fourteen, that’s 13 11 14, or reach out to a person that’s close to you.


0:32:59 (Michelle)
As societies, as communities, we don’t operate in one linear way, and that means that disasters also don’t operate alone.

Disasters that rock a community also bring up a whole lot of issues that had already existed.

Practical issues like housing shortages and social issues like domestic violence are all made worse by natural disasters.

So as a school teacher, you won’t only be grappling with the practical issues at hand, or the direct emotional impacts of the disaster. 

The most important thing, aside from doing the best you can for your community, is to look after yourself so you can do the job you need to do.


0:33:34 (Chrissie)
Honestly if you didn't have to teach it would be easier - find someone to teach your classes, so that you could you really just have to be there attending to anything that turned up.

I actually think now, two and a quarter years past the time that it happened, I think we're actually at our most challenging time in a lot of ways because the energy has run out and so yeah from a leader point of view it doesn't stop, a year later, because everyone's tired. 


0:34:13 (Fran)
Actually taking up the opportunity to see your psychologist because what that does is make sure that you're working through anything that might be emotional and bringing it back to what is actually important for that, for the next day, for the next week, to get the school through. It actually changed my own perception around seeing someone on that level, just because I never realised it was about actually just practicality ‘ok well what are you actually wanting here? What are you wanting to move in the school? What’s your enablers, what’s your barriers?’


0:34:53 (Laura)
That’s a really important point that you mentioned there and I know as a principal and as school leaders you’re often worrying about your staff and worrying about the wellbeing of your staff and it's really important to remember yourself and I know that leaders put themselves after their staff a lot. So yeah how have you tried to find that balance and tried to to remember to keep, keep yourself priority in all of that?


0:35:23 (Fran)
I think finding opportunities for returning to things that actually make you happy, and it's actually ok to step down, it's actually ok to take a break because you need to work on you, and you can't work on education if you're not working on you. 

All leaders will find that they’re fantastic at giving that advice to everyone else, and you're not so wonderful at doing it yourself so it took a long time. 

What made you laugh as a little kid? We look at things with a different lens when we’re a child, what made you laugh? Whatever it is, if it’s silly it doesn’t matter, just return to it.

What made me laugh as a kid was being active and roller skating, so I bought myself a beautiful pair of pastel rainbow roller skates and I was roller skating around a couple of the streets in Corryong and the kids were laughing and the parents were laughing, and I’m pretty sure they thought I was going insane, but you know it’s returning to things that genuinely make you laugh even if it is laughing at yourself, and looking for that pleasure.


0:36:39 (Laura)
What particularly complicated the recovery process was that only a few months after the fires, we were all locking ourselves in our homes to avoid COVID.

Now these students are not only grappling with what happened in the fires, they’re grappling with the changes that COVID has made to all of us.


0:36:54 (Fran)
I think it’s had an absolutely huge impact and quite a devastation to be honest because one of the things that you need to do when you go through trauma is process that and you know, each time you talk about it you might cry a little less, and they lost that opportunity. We lost that opportunity to reconnect with community, to reconnect with others to even check in on others.


0:37:24 (Warren)
So now you got to start to rethink, how do we engage these kids? Because it’s different, it’s changed. The kids are different, their interests are different. They’re not willing to feel like, they just want to stay comfortable and not take themselves outside of that. So when you put events on, often kids don’t want to get involved because that’s outside of their little comfort zone, it’s outside of what they normally do. So bringing the fun back, I feel, has become harder.

We gotta keep trying to have things on, provide options for kids, things that kids enjoy and hope that if the options are there long enough that they’ll eventually take them up. 


0:38:13 (Laura)
Yeah it’s a reminder of what a marathon community recovery is, it’s not a sprint it’s a marathon and I think that couldn’t be more true having covid impacts on top of natural disaster impacts before that, it just makes it even more of a marathon.


0:38:40 (Warren)
How long has it extended the recovery process? Who knows? The fact that we weren’t able to reunite as a school, as a community, at events for two years after that has certainly had an impact on people being able to move on and for the community to be able to come back together, and the school to be able to come back together - it’s extended that process and we’ve got this group of kids who are essentially now, really disengaged at school and it’s a challenge now to try and get them back having fun at school because kids that are happy and engaged take more in, they’re going to learn more and it’s certainly a challenge and it’s certainly drawn out the process.


0:39:55 (Michelle)
The process of recovery is complicated and multifaceted, but we do know a few things are important and universal.

For instance we know that as a parent or a teacher or a leader, it’s important to engage kids.


0:40:06 (Fran)
Our year 11’s and 12’s were absolutely phenomenal because we had all these services in and everyone comes with their own little call card you know, a little card that can fit in their wallet but my goodness, after a very short time we had a pile of them.

But our year 11’s and 12’s came up and said “we want one card with all the services that we need as teenagers in this community.” so they said that to me and I passed that on to Corryong Health and within you know weeks they developed this one card that sat in their wallets they then made them into fridge magnets that sat on every family’s fridge so everyone had those “ok I got this crisis” or “I'm not coping” alright, let's look at that that card out of my wallet, let's take that magnet on the fridge and see exactly who do I call and it was really simple. 


0:41:02 (Laura)
That’s really great because it's a really good example of listening to young people, listening to kids themselves and you know, not, I think sometimes it can be easier to just assume as as adults what they need, or assume it's going to be a really crazy, loaded answer that you're not sure quite what to do with but that's a really great example of their needs being so achievable and so practical in that situation that you know it was something you could make happen within weeks. 


0:41:36 (Fran)
They have logical, practical, simple ideas that make great impact where I think adults sort of look at youth leadership as ‘ok they need to do this big community projects’ to feel empowered and to feel like they belong, but at times where there has been something like the bushfires or whether you're looking it like the floods, and when you reach out to the kids to say you’ve got this organisation, they want to do a leadership project and people from other organisations to tell your story don't be put down or think ‘goodness, this isn’t working’ if they don’t want to. And it’s quite likely that they won’t want to, they want to work directly in their group because they want to form their own securities and stabilities again and their own safety. 


0:42:40 (Laura)
What are the skills that you've taken away or maybe grown through this experience leading, during in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term recovery of the disasters that your community’s experienced? 


0:42:54 (Fran)
I think one of the greatest learnings has been networking. Networking is, is absolutely vital. like you look at your teams within your schools it just needs to broaden to your teams within the community. 

We all know that sometimes being a principal or being a leader is a bit like being on an island, and it will be more so when you’re going through something like this, so it's important that you reach out to your network principals, you reach out to whether it's your Senior Education Improvement Leaders, it's, they’re there and you will need to use them. Don't be too proud.

Then there's then there's that balancing with actually looking after yourself and that's probably the hardest thing.

The amount of communication you will do is unbelievably - it's just, it's just mountainous. And that will happen from the time you know 6:30 in the morning and that will expand till 11:00 at night so you have to put your boundaries in, and you really have to make sure that you've got that, whether it's 10 minutes just to sit down and just breathe… that's really, really important and probably the hardest. Don't think I've quite got that down yet, I’m working on it.


0:44:17 (Laura)
We’re almost done, but before we go, I want to introduce you to someone briefly.

In the next episode of Disaster Talks, we’re going to be focusing specifically on how to support students.
One of the people we’ll hear from is Sinan Kerimofski. He was the Principal of Margaret River Primary School during the bushfires of 2011.

There are a few really interesting things he learnt that I wanted to share with you now because they add nicely to what Fran had to say.


0:44:45 (Sinan)
I think when you lead a school you feel complete ownership of the school so you think if anything happens you’re gonna control it, you’re in complete control ‘I’m going to take this on and I’ll control it.’ And when you have something like this that’s out of your control it really does upset your psyche and this was beyond my control and beyond the school’s control. 

It's about really controlling what you can control. Making sure that student’s care is first and foremost. You need to make sure they’re care for and looked after cos that's really our job and making sure all your process and protocols in place were about student safety and then knowing their whereabouts.

And communication is the key and you have one source of truth, as soon as you start having different devices and different platforms that you’re sharing information on it gets a bit messy and it can lose that integrity as well, that was really important. 


0:45:40 (Laura)
If a new school leader is listening to this podcast, what would you suggest to them to help them prepare their school for an event or a disaster like this?


0:45:50 (Sinan)
This day and age most education jurisdictions have risk management plans, bushfire plans, and they are really well laid out.

In this case we didn’t have to evacuate but we did in the aftermath, discuss, if it had of crossed one more street then the town was in trouble, and we would have had to have kept the students in the school, so where is a safe place to keep our students. 

I would certainly encourage, well I think it’s almost mandated that they have evacuation practices. And quite often we used to just ring the siren three times and just see what would happen, and see what the staff would do because that’s the best way to find out where the holes are and where the flaws are.

The other thing was we didn’t have hard copies, because everything is online, there’s a reliance and we kept getting the same information “just go online, go online” but the power went out so there was no online and we didn’t have hard copies of student details and didn’t have hard copies of staff details. It’s easy enough to say everything is online or on your phone but definitely have a hard copy of all the details for your school.

0:47:01 I just want to say, what sort of a role does a leader play in all of this? Quite often you can’t do a great deal but you just have to be there, you have to be there for people, you have to support, be at the community meetings, have presence everywhere. But the leader at a school setting needs to really guide actions for your staff, for your students and needs to try and make some meaning of what’s happening around the place.


0:47:31 (Michelle)
There’s no denying the fact that disasters can be tough. 
They’re hard for communities and for individuals and they’re hard for schools. 

As a school leader the best thing you can do is to be aware of what risks exist in your community and have solid networks in place in case a disaster does happen.

If this podcast has raised any issues or challenges for you, don’t push through alone. 

You can call Lifeline on thirteen eleven fourteen, that’s 13 11 14.

You can also visit the ACATLGN website where we have resources and links to services to support yourself, your family and your children. That’s earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au. Again, the ACATLGN website is early trauma grief dot ANU dot EDU dot AU.

You can also speak to your doctor and they will be able to refer you to someone in your community that can offer you support.


0:48:29 (Laura)
Thank you to the community of Corryong for sharing your stories of this challenging time, and to Corryong College for opening your doors to us.

Disaster Talks is produced by the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network at the Australian National University in collaboration with UNICEF Australia, and made by FACTS.

Editing and design by Liz Keen from Headline Productions.

Michelle Roberts is our co-host, and I’m Laura Gooyers-Bourke.