Leadership in a time of loss

Two school leaders reflect on the remarkable challenges faced from a summer of bushfires and a global pandemic.

Image: Michael Blenkins and his son Edmund surveying damage to their family property in West Batlow. Credit: Matthew Abbott/The New York Times/Headpress

A dark and difficult summer of catastrophic bushfires will leave a lifelong impact on affected communities across the state.

That was the view of school principals Michelle Wainwright and Michael Blenkins who spoke with Secretary Mark Scott on the Every Student Podcast about the ‘undefendable’ bushfires that converged on the town of Batlow in January this year.

Michelle Wainwright, principal of Batlow Technology School, lives on a farm and lost everything in the fires that hit the town, famous for the apples that bear its name, in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains.

“The day we learnt that we had lost everything: That was really heartbreaking,” Ms Wainwright said.

Michael Blenkins, relieving principal at Tumbarumba High School, is president of the Batlow Rural Fire Service and worked alongside his son Edmund and fellow RFS volunteers to contain the fires.

“We were doing back-burning around the pines and other areas around the perimeter of the town, hoping that we would stop and contain the fire before it even got to the town,” Mr Blenkins said.

While fighting the fires he assumed his house on a truffle farm outside of the main village, had also been lost, but miraculously while some farm infrastructure was destroyed his home survived.

Despite the loss of personal possessions and property, both school leaders told Mr Scott they knew the importance of helping their community through the devastation and a return to a sense of normalcy.

“Small towns do stick together, so I knew I had to get back to work and make sure the school was ready for first-day back because that was so important for our students to be able to come back to school,” Ms Wainwright said.

“We tried to get everything back to normal as quick as possible and that was our goal,” Mr Blenkins added.

Tumbarumba High worked to identify which students had been directly affected and contacted families before school resumed to offer practical support with school uniforms and stationery packs.

“That really built a great rapport with those families so some really positive things came out of it,” Mr Blenkins said.

Image: Michelle Wainwright focused on making sure her school was ready for students at the start of the school year.

Once the school year began the focus turned to providing emotional and psychological support for staff and students.

Additional counselling services were deployed by the department into the region with concerns it could take a school term for the emotional toll to hit.

“It has really changed the communities thinking about accessing counselling,” Ms Wainwright observed.

“Before they would never access counselling but now they are reaching out and asking for help, not just for their child but for their whole family.”

Adding to the trauma of the bushfires was the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to more disruption as schools transitioned to learning from home.

“The students found it really difficult because they were back in isolation again,” Ms Wainwright said.

“They had just got back into school, back into their social friendships and they were now back at home. It was quite a trying time for everybody.”

Batlow Technology School posted paper learning packs home and year advisors at Tumbarumba High contacted families to track the emotional needs of students. Both schools are offering additional supports for Year 12 students as they approach HSC exams in October.

“We are going to be running HSC study hall sessions throughout Term 3 so the kids are not only keeping on top of assessments and learning, but also their actual exam preparation,” Mr Blenkins said.

Both school leaders acknowledged the lasting impact this year’s disruption would have on their students and school community.

“I can see the support is going to need to be there long term. We know that it is going to affect all of us for the rest of our lives,” Ms Wainwright said.

Both principals said they valued their roles in the community as school leaders more now than ever.

After battling the fire fronts alongside former students Mr Blenkins said he now viewed those he had taught in a different light.

“I really see my students – even though some of them are now close to 40 – quite differently now and I really value, and I guess love them even more,” he said.

“It has shown me that there is really special people out in our communities and they value their town, and they value their school, and they value the department as well,” Ms Wainwright added.

“It just reinforces that we are tough and we just keep on going day by day.

“But it is also important to let people see that you are human and that you do have your down times and then they come and pick you up.”

Listen to the full episode now:

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