‘We kept on going because our children needed us’

The story of how a school came back after the Black Saturday fires.

Strathewen, north-east of Melbourne, was devastated in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, and its tiny primary school destroyed. Principal Jane Hayward, who will soon share her experiences in a seminar at ISV, tells The Parents’ Website about the central role the school played in the town’s recovery.

Can you tell us about your own experiences as Principal of Strathewen Primary School in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires?

I occasionally look back and wonder how I got through those days – I think maybe adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It’s amazing what we can cope with when we have to!

Fortunately, I had a terrific little staff team and we all believed in the importance of student wellbeing above all else.  We were in very unfamiliar territory, dealing with trauma, grief and loss on such a large scale  – it was everywhere we looked.  For my staff and myself, being local ourselves, we’d all lost so much in our personal and professional lives, but we kept on going because our children and our school community needed us.

The role of Principal when a major disaster impacts a school is a huge one, particularly I think in a small school setting where the school is a bit like the hub of the community. The role of leaders and teachers changed a great deal for us; we were not just educators, but the source of advice, coordinator of specialist services and agencies for families, provider of essential items, provider of a safe place and somewhere to be and that was before we worked with our students.

Teaching was hard going. We worked to maintain the routines we’d always had, kept the behavioural boundaries in place and kept a very close eye on our kids. Dealing with post trauma issues in children and families is not a short-term prospect.

With the school destroyed, you worked with a small group of parents to reinstate the school at another location, which opened the Wednesday after the fires. Can you explain the importance of that?

We met on the Monday after the fires at the local hall, just outside the fire road blocks.  As many of our school families as possible were there with the staff.  We talked and looked after one another and the offer of some empty portables 20km away at Wattle Glen Primary School was made – and we took it.  It was so important that we were all together, running our school and usual programs as much as possible. So, we met on Monday, cleaned and set up the old portables on Tuesday from dawn til dusk and then opened on the Wednesday. Providing some sort of normality for our children and their families was vital. Everything had changed for our families, there had been so much loss, that school gave people somewhere to be and a point of contact with others from their community. Our families were living all over the place. We had buses coming in from all directions, so school was the centre of the community for many.

Reopening school and getting just one aspect of life back to some sense of normality was so important.

Can you tell us about ‘chook therapy’ and the impact it had?

The chook project was fantastic.  Local artist Barbara Joyce came up with the idea of recruiting volunteer knitters to knit up beautiful, coloured chooks, which had been designed by our students. She had lots of volunteers who wanted to help the kids in fire affected areas in some way and lots of local ladies who needed something to do with their hands!  Barbara felt that giving our children something soft and snuggly to cuddle was a great idea – and she was right. They were such a welcome addition to homes and presented to their student designer by the knitter on a special day at school. Our kids loved this project and it really showed them how other people cared and were thinking of them during the tough days after Black Saturday.

Last year we hosted the Bohol Children’s Choir from the Philippines for a day at Strathewen. These children had endured huge trauma with cyclone impacting their homes and then a huge earthquake following. Barbara had again coordinated her knitters and the kids from Bohol were presented with a colourful Australian Chook. They were very well received. The language barrier wasn’t an issue, the smiles said it all.

Later on last year, our students created beautiful felted wool doves and each one carried a message of support. These were sent across to the students in Bohol on the anniversary of the devastating earthquake. Our children show incredible empathy and really understand trauma and loss. They are very grateful for the support they’ve been shown over the years and like to ‘pay it forward’.

Your experience reinforced the pivotal role that schools and teachers play in the life of students. How critical is that role in times of grief and loss?

Absolutely vital. I think that the need to belong and be part of a group is something that really rises to the surface after a major incident, trauma or grief and loss. Our situation was on a large scale, but I’ve seen the same thing after a sudden death in a community or student group. My school, my staff team and I were seen as a source of support well beyond what would normally be expected. Those students who were with us during those early years post Black Saturday are still very much connected to the school community and one another. They experienced something and got through something so life changing together.

We provided what we called a ‘highlights program’ for our students – this meant that we always had something to look forward to. A footy clinic, a baking day, a day in the surf – we always made sure that something special was coming up. It was a great distraction for children and parents (who often joined us) and it’s how I now live my life – I always have something to look forward to.

Seeing such capable parents, people we knew so well, struggling in many cases meant that the school routine and school staff were often the only consistent and stable part of life for our students.

You’ve been in contact with a Principal in Canada. Can you explain the circumstances?

Last year I took leave and headed over to Boise, Idaho, as the keynote speaker at the International Association of Wildland Fire conference. I was asked to speak to this huge collection of emergency service personnel from around the world about ‘The Community Impact of Disaster’ and what this meant.

As a result, a short time ago, I received an email from a Canadian firefighter who had tracked me down. He’d heard me speak in Boise and wanted to put me in touch with the Principal of a school in Fort McMurray in Northern Canada, following huge forest fires over there.

As a result, Lisa and I have been emailing – sharing stories and support. Our stories are very different, but the fall out, the trauma, the challenges and the community recovery journeys are very similar.

I’ve said for many years now, since February 2009, that something good had to come out of what we experienced at our little school and I hope that in sharing what I’ve learned and working to embed disaster resilience education in our curriculum and build on community planning strategies etc, maybe the journey for the next principal in my shoes will be a little less tough. Not easy, it would never be that, but maybe a little less difficult than our journey.

Jane Hayward, AM, and experienced educator Judy Battle will run a seminar on Monday 1 August 2016 for school leaders and teachers on Working with Students who Experience Loss and Grief. You can register here.

Main image: Children in the garden of the reborn Strathewen Primary School.