Resilience and recovery rise from the ashes

The two-day Phoenix Conference is bringing staff from bushfire-affected schools together for the first time.

29 April 2021
A woman stands at a lectern and speaks at a conference.
Image: Unwavering support: Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell at the Phoenix Conference.

The experiences of school leaders and staff through the recent natural disasters will help provide a roadmap to recovery for future crises.

That was the message yesterday for around 300 school leaders, counsellors and staff from 151 bushfire-affected schools at the Phoenix Conference run by the Department of Education to focus on bushfire recovery.

The two-day conference included keynote speeches from Resilience NSW Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and workshops on a range of issues including wellbeing, student voice, leadership through crisis and digital technology for learning.

Deputy Secretary, School Performance South Murat Dizdar used his address to thank those who had worked through the bushfires.

“There was no textbook or playbook for you to rely on,” he said during what he described as extraordinary times.

“None of us could have foreseen the scale of events and it called for extraordinary measures in response and that is what I have witnessed in NSW public schools time and time again.”

Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning Sarah Mitchell reassured school leaders that “continuing to support bushfire recovery is a priority for me”.

Ahead of announcing the establishment of a dedicated response and recovery team to better prepare schools for crises, the Minister said the bushfires had reinforced the central place public schools held in their communities.

Citing a visit to Wytaliba Public School – one of two schools lost in the fires - Ms Mitchell said local builders and department staff had worked through the holidays without a break to ensure it was open for day one of 2020.

“It was a symbol of how the whole community wanted to see that school open for the children, for the staff and the community,” she said.

Ms Mitchell said the conference was an opportunity for school leaders to finally gather together in person to share their experiences.

“It’s also a chance to acknowledge the work that has been done by school communities to ensure our students were able to continue to get a high-quality education in some of the most challenging circumstances over the past 18 months,” she said.

Former Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove used his recollections of a career working in disaster recovery to reflect on the importance of the work school staff had undertaken since the bushfires.

He said it was the role of leaders to restore, uplift and support people every day to say we’re getting better and we’ll be better than ever when this is all over.

Mr Cosgrove pointed out that principals’ leadership efforts during the bushfires had “gone so far beyond pedagogy and the day to day running of schools”.

“You’ve done it magnificently, but not without cost,” he said.

Acting Education Secretary Georgina Harrisson said it was important to acknowledge that some people in the bushfire-affected areas were still living in temporary accommodation and still in trauma.

Yet despite their own personal trauma, many staff had “stood up, turned around and lent in to support others”.

“We have kept our staff and students safe in the fullest meaning of the word,” she said.

Eden Public School principal Tanja Vogt said through the conference the department had shown an “acknowledgement of the magnitude of what happened”.

“We haven’t had the time to reflect because we went straight into COVID and didn’t get a chance to reflect on what we’d been through,” she said.

Ms Vogt said during the conference images and conversations had stirred emotions.

“I have to admit I have been emotional a couple of times,” she said.

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