As a school leader, you're the expert of your school community, but during a crisis, you'll need to draw on supports from other agencies and education departments.
In this episode, we look at the bigger systems picture behind a school's disaster response and hear from some of the experts who lead the departments that can offer you critical support during these challenging times.
Disaster Talks Episode 3 - Transcript
In this episode:
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 - Skill development for how to lead in a crisis from people who have been through it. Tailoring your leadership to context. The importance of role clarity.
Themes - Disasters through the eyes of children and young people; Child perspective and Principal’s perspective of a disaster; Personal vs professional experience; Teaching and learning after a disaster - adapting lessons; Disaster mental health.
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.
When you’re a school leader, dealing with government agencies can sometimes be tricky.
They work within different systems, use different language, and can have different priorities.
If you’re hit by a disaster, what was tricky can quickly become overwhelming.
We’re going to help you with some ways to help navigate this challenge.
My name is Laura Gooyers-Bourke and I’m the project officer at the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network at the ANU.
And I’m Michelle Roberts, I’m the Director of the Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma Loss and Grief Network. I’ve worked in disasters as a psychologist and educator for nearly 40 years.
Before we get started, I want to let you know that this episode deals with some strong emotions around the intensity of disasters.
This content could be upsetting, and if this raises any issues for you, there’s 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 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 support in your area.
When your school experiences a disaster -like a fire, flood or earthquake -communicating with your immediate team can be hard enough.
If you’re also responsible for keeping external agencies and services up to date, the communication can quickly become too much.
Chris Gostelow is the chief psychologist for the Department of Education in Western Australia.
He specialises in the psychological and organisational aspects of crisis management.
As a part of his role, Chris is responsible for the development of knowledge and operations of the school psychological services workforce in assisting school communities before, during and after a disaster.
One important part of that operational planning is making sure everyone’s roles are completely clear.
The more clarity there is as to who's doing what, the better things will operate. For me the issue of roles and responsibilities needs to fit within the subset of leadership so you need the leadership so you need, for instance, the school principal who understands their school who's actually owning that leadership and and liaising appropriately both internally within the school community but also with the other agency aspect or parts and with a more significant incident you are talking about teams of people involved and so unless you got that you've got that clarity you’ve got overlap, you've got confusion, you potentially got tasks that are being attempted by a number of people and that will result in ambiguities and therefore things can slip so that the clarity is important but part of that therefore for me is issues of communication as to who’s doing what role, making it really apparent and clear and in fact people change role. So a role might be designated to one person then to another person subsequently and then I guess around that you’ve got issues of the associated record keeping so if you're in that role and your function is to do x,y and z, well you would do but you will maintain the appropriate records in order for there to be I guess accountability, but also the ability to look back and synthesise what has occurred, and ultimately to account for but also to learn from.
Is there any other strategies that you found helpful in maintaining clarity before a disaster actually occurs?
I think schools need to have incident plans in place. So the schools in Western Australia are provided with templates they can use in order to create a plan that works for them. And so when the schools… that… there is two aspects to having a plan. The one is having the plan, with the roles designated or what have you, but the other is the process of developing the plan and the process of development will often really highlight the roles and what those roles are in order to separate them. So there’s the internal School roles but I think the other key roles are you’ve got school and what it's doing, the support people from the region. What is their role and how does it interface with the school? So I think that clarity is really important and again I think the directors of education and the other lead school psychologist and other regional people who provide support for schools will often go out of their way to clarify their roles and in fact to clarify their role not just as it is but how they will work within the incident support unit how they work with the media unit and so on so they’re clarifying other aspects of roles in order to enable schools to get on and do what they need to do without the concern about who's doing other things.
It’s important you’re clear on these roles well before a disaster strikes because decision making can be difficult at the time.
That means you’ll be more effective as a leader, and also help protect your own mental health and well-being.
When we’re first impacted by a disaster, adrenaline levels increase in response to the perceived threat. With the higher levels of adrenaline in our system we can focus intently on what’s directly in front of us and respond as needed - But if you have to negotiate with other leaders in the team about who’s doing which job, it can be difficult to think more broadly in the heat of the moment.
Knowing your role and tasks beforehand can help with making decisions under pressure.
Still, however planned you are, some of these things will need to change on the day, because every disaster is different and every experience is different.
Luckily, there are people who are trained and experienced to help you deal with the parts of the disaster that you can’t always plan for.
When you’re grappling with the uncertainty and the fear that can come with a big event, it can be very hard to know what you need and when you need it. It can be even harder to try to communicate what you need to people sitting far away, not experiencing the intensity that you are. But those people can bring perspective, experience and valuable resources.
Look it's really critical that people know each other's roles and what they’re responsible for in a disaster…
Pauline Kotselas is the lead of Mental Health Services for the NSW Department Education and Training. Part of her role is leading over one thousand school counsellors across NSW.
Her team will find ways to help you during disasters or critical incidents.
In a large scale disaster we come together and we have an assets and infrastructure team and we may have schools that have experienced damaged or destroyed as has happened with the recent floods and that becomes obviously a real priority because we know the importance of students having a more predictable routine in their lives particularly if they've been displaced if their family homes been lost as well so a real priority is getting students back to school if they have not been able to attend for a period of time and that could be a pop-up school it could be schools co-locating for periods of time and even technology teams - When we have lost schools, how do we quickly get technology back in place for our schools, computers available for our classroom etc. so it’s being clear about what each of our roles are, our responsibilities and how we can work together to maximise the support for schools so they can get back to learning and also supporting students in the most effective way we can.
These practical and hands-on supports are going to be crucial for you if you are going through a disaster. And you’ll have to be ready to let people like Pauline know what you need so she can best help you.
Alongside the physical impacts of a disaster, there can also be emotional impacts for school staff, and these teams can help you with this too.
We have an employee assistance programs available to our staff but we also recognise that the staff that are working in these communities, living in these communities so they have had the dual impact of, you know, trying to support their students but also maybe dealing with their own circumstances of loss and displacement. So those health and safety and well-being programs for staff are critical. We also have communication and media teams so cascading of information and messages from the department needs to be coordinated so they don't need to get multiple messages from different sources. It really does need to be coordinated in a way that is as streamlined as possible given that they’ve got so much to manage.
Do you have a set of protocols or systems that are in place and must be followed when a disaster or crisis occurs?
Yes, so our department has a range of policies and procedures around Emergency Management, so we have Emergency Management procedures that are led by our health and safety team at the Directorate. We also have fact sheets on various kinds of disasters or crises that may occur and that guides our schools. And we have also a range of planning templates and I think these are really helpful to guide schools when a disaster or crisis occurs but I suppose it's always important to remember that a crisis is not business as usual so they’re a helpful guide but there's a lot of complexity that happens in a disaster and it's hard to, it's not always a sequential process to manage it clearly and you need to respond to the local community needs and really listen.
Having people on the ground to give that local knowledge sounds pretty critical.
It's really vital because they really can let us know what the needs are and continue to monitor those needs and they change and they'll shift. In the immediate aftermath it’s often we are looking at safety and really just trying to restore routine as much as possible that may take time depending on the nature of the disaster.
While people like Pauline and Chris bring knowledge and experience from responding to previous disasters, they don’t know your school like you do.
So when you’re speaking with the Department’s experts, it’s important that you can communicate the needs of your team and your community clearly.
During stressful moments it’s easy to rush into things.
If you can, try to take time to map out what you need before you have these conversations.
Sit down and make a list of what’s happening, who’s impacted, what you expect over the next week and what you need.
It’s not a speech, just a list of reminders so you don’t forget anything important.
It’s also good to let them know about your community - any particular concerns or history that might be relevant to your students and staff right now.
Every school that we work in has got a history and that history includes the significant incidents in the past and so you can't be ignorant of or disregard what's happened in the past that will impact upon the way people respond to or think about the current incident. So that cognition of the history is really really important. But I guess that the issue for schools is that you're talking about children or young people at different developmental levels, with different personal experiences and backgrounds, staff similarly with different backgrounds and different experiences and different reactions, even the school leadership is in that same spot. You’ve then got a range of students who are impacted in different ways. So we must be really cognisant of the fact that you’ve got an incident that looks to be potentially more affecting a particular cohorts but which will affect, in various ways, other cohorts and so it’s using whatever intelligence is available from what you know, but being open and receptive to new information that may become available as it's unfolding. Because parents might suddenly tell you about something the school didn't know about before about their child about other children. But other agencies likewise will inform you of particular children, they could be children in care, or they may be children who they know about from other mental health or other reasons, for whom this incident may be significant and we may need to be considerate of them in the way we map. So it really is looking at layers of people impacted and looking at the individual needs, the group needs, and the entire school system, whole school needs and trying to do that simultaneously.
An important part of a community’s story and history is whether they’ve been affected by other disasters before.
Multiple disasters or critical events can have a big impact on recovery.
Unfortunately, these are becoming more frequent in Australia and many of us have experienced cascading disasters in the last few years -like drought, bushfires, floods and then covid.
Hi my name’s Arlia, I live on the North Coast in Coffs Harbour and I’m in year 9.
My name’s Olivia and I’m in year 9, I’m from a small area near Coffs Harbour in the mid north coast.
The area that Olivia and Arlia live in has been impacted by fires, floods, a massive hailstorm, and of course COVID, all in the last three years.
The girls were in year six when the fires impacted on their region.
I remember that we had, like three days off or something on the worst fires because you couldn't, I live right near the school and you can see it from the house but you couldn't see it on those days. Like you couldn't see like 100 metres away.
I remember during the fires I had to evacuate and we also had to take our ponies over to one of the closest showgrounds, The Coffs Showgrounds, and we had to stay there for a night or two. And there were lots of other families that had their animals around in the showgrounds. There were heaps of different types of livestock and there were lots of other animals, like cows and horses and chickens and alpacas. Yes, there were quite a lot of animals there.
We evacuated our house before we evacuated the ponies, and so I was a little bit worried about them, but I knew that because they were at another property with other horses they were still being taken care of by the property owner and so that gave me some relief.
But yeah at school, because we were, a teacher came, well a friend’s mum who was also a teacher at the school had to come in and ask us, well tell us that we had to go out to our houses because we were all being evacuated half way through the day so that was a little bit scary.
Yeah I think for me, all of the events happened really close together which was kind of weird, and so like, we had the fires, then we would have a break and then after that I’m pretty sure we had the pandemic then while that was still having the pandemic the floods started happening and all of that was like only in the span of three years probably and so it did happen all very quickly and quite unexpected for a lot of it as well.
I kind of think of COVID as kind of continuing, the floods and COVID they’re just all happening, it’s not like a specific time like it’s probably going to flood again this year.
COVID itself has added a whole new level of disaster management and recovery to our processes. It’s also impacted on the recovery of other disasters before it.
We know that there is a process of recovery that most people, and communities go through after a disaster.
Anecdotally, we’ve seen that COVID has slowed the recovery process from the 2019/2020 bushfires. We think this is due to the fact that people have been isolated, and unable to come together to connect and share their stories.
Helping to establish predictability and new routines is helpful to recovery. That’s true for kids and for adults as well.
In the context of COVID that’s been a little bit challenging for some time, in the sense that our students and have a periods of remote learning and so when a disaster happens for a period of time a school might not be accessible, the roads may be blocked and it may not be safe to travel to school and and it may be not even be possible to for some of the student to access remote learning if they obviously don't have the technology and the resources. So getting students back to school, face to face, with their teachers, with their peers is really important for their learning and their well-being. It's often symbolic for the community too, you know the schools are back and it’s that hope when so much is going on and getting back into routine is, we can’t underestimate the importance of that for our students.
I think our school was really good, like what I’ve heard, it's been one of the best in the area, because we had a lot of laptops, like a lot of other schools don’t have laptops, and a lot of kids would just have a phone, and their family would have like one laptop, and so we could, like go online, and the teachers would have zooms every day for every class. The teachers would help us and they were always there and it was always like an option to go to them.
Yeah it was definitely a strange experience, but I think we were able to have longer breaks and we were able to help our families out. I remember they took out one period of school where we were able to help out around the house and keep ourselves busy. And they weren’t usually letting us have too much time on our laptops which was good but we were able to kind of like, socialise on zoom and stuff with our friends during the breaks which was good.
I do remember quite often at lunch having zooms with our friends and playing Uno which was fun, online, which was easy to cheat at (laughs).
As a leader, managing the challenges of covid and remote learning, you were probably also aware that some students needed extra support, so how did you get it to them?Pauline was managing this need on a state-wide level.
One of the things in terms of the school counselling service was we quickly had to shift the way we deliver services. So traditionally we’ve always delivered services face to face in schools so all of the sudden no previous access we had to get access to a telehealth system really quickly. And we had to then, not only get access to the technology and the software to deliver good telepsychology services but we had to quickly train our staff in how to do either the phone counselling or counselling via video conferencing. And that required quickly developing that training package and rolling that out so we could provide those services.
Whether you’ve thought of it that way or not, you have already led during a disaster, with COVID. And if you’re in a community that has experienced bushfires, storms or floods in this time -you've faced a cascade of disasters.
You know leading can be fulfilling, and challenging, and you know disasters can be intense.
So what are the skills and techniques you can develop to prepare for leading in a disaster?
I suppose it's being able to do things really quickly using the evidence and tapping into people that can support you because, you know, identifying who the people are who have a lot of expertise working with them and really delivering that support that’s needed, so it's looking at what you need in each of those different phases of the recovery process. So what do we need in the immediate aftermath; what do we need in the short term, medium and long-term. And that will be different depending on the nature of the crisis and also where we are along that journey.
I guess an interesting challenge we’re facing at the moment with cascading disasters and things happening quite frequently in recent years and one thing may follow quickly on the heels of another event and how do we define what phase we’re in sometimes, that can be a bit challenging it used to be kind of a linear concept and now you know you could be almost in any of the phases, in all of them, almost all at once.
Absolutely and that is so true and that's why you've really got to be looking and talking to people on the ground to see what their needs are, and in schools we talk about a model of a stepped care of support –a stepped care model of support, and it's really matching the response to the needs of that individual and that's what we need to do in terms of what we’re describing there.
It’s true that we need to be across what our staff and students need, so we can support them.
But that can be easier said than done, particularly if we’re not seeing them each day in class.
Olivia and Arlia were in their first year of high school when the first COVID lockdowns happened. That makes it even harder for schools to communicate the support options available.
I do remember they did tell us that if we were struggling if we needed help there was like one or two people we could speak to, like our year level coordinator or our tutor teacher as well. But I feel like, because we were all new to high school, we didn’t know many of the teachers that well so we weren’t really that comfortable enough going to speak with them. We did just, yeah, mostly just spoke to our friends about that stuff and like, and we got the most help from them I reckon.
We want to strive to do the best we possibly can when it comes to a disaster response, when we look back, it's common to see ways it could have been done differently.
We can’t do everything perfectly on a normal day, let alone in the midst of an intense event.
The response and recovery agencies and departments are also reflecting and looking at how they can improve their support to you.
It’s good practice to review your plan after things have settled down and update it with the things you’ve learned from your experience.
I think we are actually quite good at the early response advice and support consultation and working with school communities, but I think what is tricky is the issue about maintaining a focus and ensuring that there is consideration of the medium to long-term needs of a school community, so that follow through that commitment to staying with the school, which is professionally responsible, but also tricky because in fact you’re not just talking about the focus, you’re talking about the focus in the context of changing circumstances within the school and in fact you’re talking about changing circumstances for individuals. Because the leadership can become fatigued over time and will become fatigued over time. Over a period of months or years there could be changes to leaders within schools, and so, people do move, work forces change. So it’s being aware of the commitment to the longer-term I guess and I guess monitoring, that the people and the students and the broader circumstances in which that support is being provided.
This issue of the time-frame for recovery is not easy to face.
Disaster recovery will take longer than you expect it to.
On the anniversary of any big event, you’ll see news stories about how slow that recovery process has been - and it’s devastating to see.
But in reality, it does take a long time for a community to repair - physically and emotionally.
As a school leader, it’s important you manage your own energy so you can focus on the journey of recovery and the future ahead.
Being in education leadership can be rewarding and satisfying, but it’s also hard work and can be emotionally draining.
After a disaster, this is all magnified.
You’re playing an essential role in your community’s recovery, but you are also recovering yourself. Thankfully, there is advice on how to get help, while you are helping others.
It's really important to have in mind what’s good practice so being aware of the research, for example, we know that immediately following a disaster people are not necessarily going to be able to engage in a typical counselling scenario but what they really need is that psychological first aid. So knowing and knowing that you know people's needs are going to change so having that evidence base about what the trajectories may be like, knowing that everybody's situation is different and respecting that difference.
A good place to start your thinking about how you can prepare, respond and recover from a disaster that impacts on your school community can be found on the Emerging Minds website.
The Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma Loss and Grief Network worked with Emerging Minds to develop practical tips and resources for educators. Just search for “How Educators can prepare their students for a natural disaster” on the Emerging Minds website at Emerging Minds DOT COM DOT AU (emergingminds.com.au).
Some of those key elements are needing to recognise a complexity of that local community, how many families are displaced, has how many families in a school may have lost their homes for example and I have spoken quite a lot about this, but you know using community led approaches is really important so getting those champions in the community who are really connected, who can help us and guide our response, coordinating what we do, communications is critical and building the capacity of our staff because they really are critical in supporting our students. So really supporting the adults, both the parents in our communities as well as our teaching staff and our counselling staff.
One of the key things we do is offer professional learning, obviously prior to an event but also in the recent bushfires and also with the bushfires and floods we've developed packages, short packages, that they can deliver to their school communities in collaboration with them, so we really want to lighten their load and make it easy for them to be able to access a professional learning package that they can deliver to their school's because what we find is a teacher's really want to make sure that they’re responding to students in the in the best way possible and they often they may be anxious about not wanting to respond to questions in a way that's not helpful so helping staff affirm what they’re doing is usually putting all the things in place that value that affirmation around knowing what the evidence is and how to respond and how to best support students during these difficult times.
Part of Chris’ role is to make sure that the psychologists who are on your staff, and those who come in to support you specifically after a disaster, are trained and prepared.
So it’s kinda like layered. You've got the people in the field doing the work, you've got the back up from the people who will lead them with a knowledge as a school psych, you've got other people at a distance, in state-wide services who can afford you their wisdom in a way that's going to work for you.
So what we value is the issue of appropriately using the right people but ensuring all school psychologists have access to appropriate training. So we have competency based training that we provide for school psychs from the beginning of their professional career with us right the way through as they advance and become more sophisticated and competent in their role.
Is that training generally set out for the year and planned ahead and do you adapt training at all throughout the year depending on what kind of incidents you’re seeing in communities?
The training we offer has been around for a number for years and it continues to be adapted. Almost every time it is done, it's different to the time before. It needs to be contemporary, it needs to be referring to incidents that people in the audience can relate to, and they can go “Ah I remember that was only recently”.
And we’re in a system and world, where things are evolving, it's got to be of great benefit and use at that point in time. So the training has changed a lot over time it will continue to change over time.
I think you touched on the -essentially the reason that we develop this podcast through our work in supporting other bushfire affected schools, we just heard so much wisdom from school leaders that we thought was really critical to share with with other schools who maybe haven't gone through it, or have and just need their experiences to be validated so I think that sort of sense of, you know, someone having your back and someone sharing a shared experience that you can relate to and even learning from the wisdom from those who gone through it is really important.
Yeah it really is, so we I mean for instance we’ve had a number of bushfires in Western Australia as have other states have a well and truly, but we would we find is, we had recently where we called upon the insights of Lead Psych’s who were elsewhere in the state who had been through bushfires maybe a year, maybe two maybe more before that and they're able to share some insights from their perspective and that was extremely helpful. But it's bigger than the state, it is bigger than our service, we will share between services.
We were aware that the schools affected, and there were, I’m guessing, about 40 schools roughly were affected, they were across all three education systems. So what was important was not just to say ‘ok you deal with your schools’, no, no, no, we were in there together and that from the very early stages we identified the need for a collaborative approach across the Catholic Education and the Independent Schools sector and the Public School Sector.
We turned to colleagues in other states and we were provided with a link to some really good planning resources that have been developed and enhanced over a few fires in Victoria and we were kindly and generously given those documents. They were so helpful to us and so we weren’t reinventing the wheel; we had a really adept and skilled great wheel that we were able to tune for our purposes.
Unfortunately, with the recent fires, floods, storms and COVID, we’re all getting more practised at managing disasters.
Arlia and Olivia have seen improvements in their school over their disaster events.
They’ve definitely gotten better. I think they used to not talk as much. We have a new school website and we access it and it's got all of our information on it, and they’re really good at talking on it, and I think that’s recent that they do that a lot.
I think in some of the events the communication between a lot of the teachers was not very good, and so they definitely have improved some of that, so if they could organise things better and can prepare which they have started to doing, which is good, it gives the students and parents a chance to figure out like what they’re going to do.
From my perspective, like a lot of heads of like the year level coordinators and the principal, I feel like they kind of deal with it, but then they kind of forget that we also are dealing with it. It’s not like, for them, they're like, OK this is what we are going to do. All good now. For us it’s like, school is basically our whole life, for them it’s their job.
We don’t get as much of a say, so it’s kind of like, they need to tell us, they need to kind of understand that more. That like, maybe ask us sometimes, “what can we do to help?”.
As a school leader you will be at the forefront of any disaster response.
Having clarity within your teams about roles and responsibilities is essential in getting life back to normal quickly and efficiently.
Planning needs to be based on real data and be adaptable enough to take into account individual experiences over what are often multiple events.
Government agencies are there to help you and while you may feel too overwhelmed to pick up the phone, it is important you reach out.
They know best practice, and they will have practical support for your problems and concerns.
They also have resources that will help guide you before, during and after an event. They can give you insights into how other leaders have navigated similar situations.
It is a lot to take in, but utilising the support available will help.
And it’s important you take it, because your role in getting your school on the path to recovery and back to normal is essential.
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.
Thank you to Chris and Pauline and to Olivia and Arlia for sharing their experiences with 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.
UNICEF believes that every child has a right to be heard, educated and participate in discussions that affect them. Therefore, we need to ensure that we consult directly with children and young people to best understand their needs and prioritise before, during and after a disaster.