Ten years after the Black Saturday bushfires, a world-leading fire education program is helping students, teachers and families recover from disaster.
“I was quite unprepared, I think, for the complete impact of being in the thick of something so big.”
Jane Hayward is principal of the primary school at Strathewen, one of the rural communities on Melbourne’s north-east fringe devastated by Victoria’s worst bushfires on 7 February 2009. Speaking to AEU News ahead of Black Saturday’s tenth anniversary, she says her school is still coming to terms with the disaster.
“We all lost so many people. I don’t think anything prepares you for the level and the length of time it takes for life to feel anything like a return to normal.”
Jane’s school of 46 students will mark the day in simple fashion, with a small, child-led commemoration in the memorial garden out in the grounds.
“All of our kids well and truly know the history of the school, the area, even though lots of them were born since,” Jane says. “It’s a time of heightened sadness. There’s no dressing that up. We reflect and we remember. But it will be a normal school day for us. Normal routine’s pretty important with kids.”
As with every year, the school community will host its own local gathering, focusing not just on remembering those lost but also on how far everyone has come – and expressing gratitude for the support that made that recovery possible.
Schools rely on their community and often form the heart of a community. After a disaster like Black Saturday, schools have a huge influence in picking up the pieces
Picking up the pieces
Being a small school, Strathewen has always relied on a network of families and community members who volunteer. After the fire, it was a parent who designed the rebuilt school’s award-winning grounds – a treasure trove of interlinked spaces including the memorial garden, cubby land, a fitness trail, fairy garden, hillside slide, French chess courtyard, chicken coop, kitchen garden, sports court and amphitheatre.
Jane is aware this sense of interdependence goes both ways. Schools rely on their community and often form the heart of a community. After a disaster like Black Saturday, schools have a huge influence in picking up the pieces, and in remaining a central, safe, trusted place for students and the community while they rebuild.
While other schools affected by the bushfire have seen an 80% turnover since 2009, Jane’s staff group has remained remarkably stable. “I’m in a really fortunate position,” she says. “I had one teacher aide retire and my long-serving, lovely business manager passed away, but I’ve still got my staff team. We’re so lucky to have that continuity of connection with our community and respect for history and understanding of individual families and children.”
That sense of connection doesn’t end when students graduate. In the week AEU News visited, four ex-students dropped by to bind books and nine others accompanied a whole-school Christmas excursion. “As the tenth year comes close we’re seeing some of our kids who moved away from the area come back,” Jane says. “They’re heading back to where they feel they need to be.”
Melbourne University’s longitudinal study Beyond Bushfires, based on multiple interviews with more than 1000 Victorians affected by Black Saturday, found that connection to community and the recuperating natural environment have been key factors in mental health, resilience and recovery.
The loss, grief, fear, disruption and stress that follow a disaster make it difficult to develop recovery strategies and make fraught decisions like whether to relocate. For many, recovery is far from linear, with reactions differing wildly, even within families. Five years after the fires mental health problems had declined overall but a significant minority (22% in high-impact communities) still experienced problems like depression, severe psychological distress and post-traumatic stress disorder (which can have a delayed onset).
Re-establishing a sense of safety and stability is critical, particularly for children. Within days of the fire, Jane’s team opened a temporary school with supplies cobbled together by neighbouring schools. From there it has been slow, steady steps forward.
“We had to navigate carefully and respectfully for a long time,” she recalls. “For years we couldn’t do bushfire education at all. We had to handle that very, very carefully because within our school families and student cohort there was so much sensitivity around bushfire and loss and impact and trauma. Even doing our fire drills and emergency plan we had to manage really carefully.”
Over time, heightened anxiety around fire season persisted. Determined to help the kids manage that anxiety, Jane led the school into partnership with the Country Fire Authority to develop a unique program.
The Strathewen-Arthurs Creek Bushfire Education Partnership grew from the CFA’s Survive and Thrive program piloted at Anglesea Primary School. The program is skills-based, drawing on local fire experts, and empowers kids to understand bushfire behaviour and risk factors in their natural landscape. Students are trained to use technical equipment to assess fire danger ratings, minimise risks and communicate their knowledge via everything from claymation to picture books, presentations and CFA events (they’re all junior members). Along the way, it ticks a host of curriculum boxes and strengthens community ties.
Jane says the program is student-led, with the kids deciding which direction to take it each year. “I think a lot of people underestimate what kids can come up with and how far they can go. To see really reserved children who’ve battled anxiety stand up and present really scientific information and mapping skills confidently at a forum, in front of a whole team of emergency management experts, is pretty amazing.”
Enhancing Emotional Literacy through Visual Arts
Professor Lisa Gibbs, Director of Melbourne Uni’s Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program and co-creator of Beyond Bushfires, says this kind of agency has a profound impact on children recovering from disaster. “Often when they’re given an opportunity to have an important role that’s age-appropriate it can support their sense of safety and their recovery,” she says.
The school has also been undertaking ELVA education through Melbourne Uni’s Dax Centre, which has proved helpful to staff and students alike. Developed by Dax over the past decade, ELVA (Enhancing Emotional Literacy through Visual Arts) offers a flexible approach to making classrooms a safe, respectful, trustworthy place to explore emotions via creativity.
One popular exercise involves children decorating a box and placing a precious object inside to explore the concept of inner feelings versus what we choose to show others. Another gives license to teachers to turn classrooms ‘upside down’ or wear clothes inside out to set the scene for activities around an emotion such as ‘confusion’.
Program Manager Andrea Jackson says ELVA’s insistence on respectful listening without judgement can be particularly powerful for children recovering from trauma. “It enables kids with any experience to be part of a classroom and participate in an activity everyone else is doing and get something special out of it,” Andrea says. “They don’t have to be taken out of a room and put into a group or be with a therapist to have a beneficial experience.”
Andrea says the students aren’t given feedback during the sessions and don’t give feedback to each other unless someone asks, which is helpful in terms of behaviour and participation.
“The kids know it doesn’t matter what their experience is, other people aren’t going to comment on it unless they’re invited to. And I think for traumatised kids that really helps them begin to integrate back into the classroom and feel normal.”
Jane says these programs have made a tremendous difference to Strathewen – and to other schools like it. Indeed, the program developed in partnership with the CFA was so successful that it has subsequently been adapted by schools not only in fire-risk areas across Australia but also by overseas schools recovering from disasters. It was recently presented at the EU Disaster Resilience Education Conference in Lisbon and is now recognised as world’s best practice for engaging students in disaster resilience education.
“Something good has to come out of something so big and so difficult to lead a school through,” Jane says.