• Secretary's update

Every Student Podcast: Michelle Wainwright and Michael Blenkins

28 July 2020

Two principals join Mark Scott to reflect on the catastrophic bushfire season and the ongoing recovery.

Transcript

Mark Scott

Hi I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education.

Today I am talking to great leaders from Batlow. Batlow is in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains and the Riverina District and is home to the famous Batlow apple. It supplies 10% of Australia’s apples and its other major employer in the area is forestry.

It was a dark and difficult summer in Batlow, the town was deemed undefendable when the Dunns Road fire headed towards the town on 2 January and residents were ordered to evacuate. No lives were lost but the blaze swept through the town, blew up the petrol station and destroyed 17 homes.

Michelle Wainwright is the Principal of Batlow Technology School, she had a farm outside Batlow and lost everything there and is now trying to rebuild and is living in a house up the road. Michelle was made substantive principal this year at Batlow Technology school after relieving as principal in 2019. She is a former chef and she came to education after travelling the world. She started work as an SLSO [School Learning Support Officer] at Tumut High, then did an accelerated teaching course and now she runs Batlow Technology School.

Michael Blenkins is relieving principal at Tumbarumba High School and he has a farm outside West Batlow and is president of the Batlow Rural Fire Service. Michael assumed during the fires that his house was lost but miraculously the house was saved but the rest of the infrastructure was lost. He has been relieving principal at Tumbarumba High School for the past 18 months and was deputy before that for four years and the Head Teacher of English for 15 years.

Welcome to you both Michelle and Michael to the Every Student Podcast.

Michael besides being a school principal as I said you are president of the Batlow Rural Fire Service can you tell us about the days leading up to the Batlow fire?

Michael Blenkins

There was a fair lead in, we were out at the fire at Ellerslie and that is where there was attempts to contain the fire in the private pine and the National Park but it eventually got away on us so we were trying to contain the fire there but prior to that just after school ended up, we were putting out and monitoring fires that had been deliberately lit, sadly. It was go, go, go from the minute the school holidays started.

Mark Scott

During the fire I understand you were fighting the fire with your son Edmund, as I said you had real apprehension your own house had been lost during the fires.

Michael Blenkins

Absolutely, we had written off our area, effectively our properties back onto the state forest and we understood that all the properties along our road at least would be lost. 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.

Mark Scott

Michelle what was experience in the days leading up to the fire?

Michelle Wainwright

We were away, it was entirely different for us. We had our son at home so that was really scary for us. We could only listen to the RFS radio to try and understand what was happening. The big thing for us was that our children and our family were safe. We listened for days and days and the day that I dropped my husband at Cairns Airport was the day that we learnt that we had lost everything. That was really heartbreaking. When we got back to town that was when the hard work started and we knew that we had to bring our community back together. I knew that our students had been evacuated as many others had been and not only once but quite a few times so the work started then.

Mark Scott

I remember visiting schools in Term 1 that had been in the heart of the fire zone and was struck at what school principals themselves had been through with their family and then all of a sudden have to turnaround and lead a community that had been through a traumatic event.

How did you deal with your own exhaustion and anxiety that had been triggered by that experience, and then find the resilience and strength to go and lead a community, where often that school was the cornerstone establishment that was still there and still strong when everything else had been lost?

Michelle Wainwright

We just keep going because we love our town and we love the people in the town and we love the school, it is really important. Small towns do stick together so I just knew that I had to get back to work and I had to 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.

Mark Scott

In those weeks when you were back and you had seen the devastation in the community but you were preparing for the return of school and the students and your staff, what were the important things that you felt that you needed to get done before the students arrived?

Michelle Wainwright

To ensure that the school was as beautiful as we could make it. We knew that there were lots of burnt fences, we knew the fire had gone through the agricultural farm but it was to make it safe and it was to bring the community back into the school and show them that we were still there as a whole school, as a community and that is why staff development day we brought the community in and we had morning tea just to assure them that we were all on deck and we wanted all of their students back and we were safe.

Mark Scott

Michael how did you think through the return and in a sense how you wanted to lead that school community?

Michael Blenkins

Tumbarumba, the town that I service at Tumbarumba High School, it was isolated by another fire front so I had access to the school and the town whereas a lot of people from Tumbarumba didn’t because they had been evacuated to either Albury or to Wagga. I really tried to work in with my DEL [Director, Educational Leadership] Jayne Gill and my deputy Megan Finnimore. We tried to get everything back to normal as quick as possible and that was our goal. The kids had had too much disruption, families wanted to get back to normality and as much as school might be considered mundane and dull and routine, it is something that you really treasure and I think the kids really treasured once they had been evacuated on some occasions twice.

That was our principle goal to get the school up and running, get back to normal, to acknowledge and to identify which kids had been affected and before school resumed we touched base with all those families to ensure that we could provide uniforms and any other stationery packs and so forth to support them. That really built a great rapport with those families so some really positive things came out of it.

Mark Scott

In a sense practical support for families that had lost things like school uniforms and other things that are required for school. What was your read as to the impact of the whole traumatic experience on students and could you identify early on the students who you were particularly concerned about or needed particular focus and attention and support or in a sense did that emerge over time as the school term rolled out?

Michael Blenkins

It really varied. Some of the kids for example who had lost their homes, lost everything, they seemed to cope with it so well and they were onward and upward in terms of their application and it really surprised me and impressed me beyond belief. In terms of other kids who were then dealing with uncertainty or with lengthy insurance claims or the kids who were just plain tired and exhausted from not having had a holiday as such over the Christmas break, their needs were quite different.

We were told it would maybe take a Term to hit people, that doesn’t sound right, it indeed was the case it really took a Term to hit people. Once employment was compromised and contracts were not being renewed and people’s livelihoods were under affect then you really saw the stressors and strains with kids and their families.

Mark Scott

Did you see the same Michelle that it took a while into the term before you could really get a sighter on the full impact on students and families?

Michelle Wainwright

Absolutely. We had four families that lost their homes within the school. We could help them straightaway but it has been emerging and this term, Term 2, there has been more children come in and speak to me and we are putting them forward for counselling but as well as the children, it is the families.

Mark Scott

I was going to ask about that to what extent have you found yourself providing that support and that supporting infrastructure to families under pressure?

Michelle Wainwright

It has really changed the communities thinking about accessing counselling. Before they would never access counselling but now they are reaching out and they are asking for help not just for their child but for their whole family so we are counselling the whole family as well.

Mark Scott

One of the big things that was a focus of the department as a whole over the summer was the, in a sense, the airlifting of counselling services to parts of the state that were affected and counsellors who were in schools in the north or the west being redeployed to fire zones. How did that counselling service work as far as your schools were concerned in having that counselling support on the ground?

Michelle Wainwright

It really has been overwhelming to have somebody on site five days a week because we have never had that opportunity. We did have a counsellor come in early on from Young, she was magnificent but right now we have a full-time counsellor as well as some other contingency counsellors which is really important for our students and our families in our town. It is really hard for our kids and our families to trust, so we are hoping that these counsellors will remain with us for time because they are just starting to trust now and they are just starting to open up and meet with the counsellors more often so it has been magnificent to have that full-time counselling on site.

Mark Scott

What about the need to encourage counselling for staff and members of executive teams and even principals of schools, have you encouraged your staff to take up counselling opportunities as well Michael?

Michael Blenkins

Initially that was the focus of our staff development day in Term 1 and we had a team there and we looked at some different professional resources including some from the ANU. We were there to support the staff in that sense and then we would have had up to six counsellors servicing the kids in the course of Term 1 which might sound disruptive but it was really quite interesting because some of them were from Victoria and other people were from industry, not just from education so we had a lot of different eyes looking at the needs of our kids and our community.

The professional dialogues that we then had really made us stop and think about the role of counselling in this crisis. Now we have a counsellor who has got tremendous expertise and even with COVID he was able to build and maintain a really good connection with our kids through the digital platform and also visiting the school. Between the two it has really serviced the kids needs better than what we had before which is a real irony but it is a real positive to come out of something quite sad and negative.

Mark Scott

It is remarkable that as we record this, we are just about half way through the year and I have joked, how can we it only be six months since Christmas, it seems like about nine years ago when you think about this year starting with the fires. We would have said in the department that the big profound impact of the year was going to have been the catastrophic fires that engulfed us over the summer period but then of course enter the virus.

It has been said about the virus that it reveals the underlying condition and if you were exhausted or you were anxious before the virus arrived, then the virus and all the disruption that has brought has just multiplied that. When the virus hit your school, your teachers, your students, invariably they were exhausted by the experiences of the year. They had an anxious year, a very disruptive year, Michael you said about how great it was for everyone to be back at school, all of a sudden we were saying best to learn from home. How did you go about transitioning to learning from home given all that you had already been through in 2020?

Michelle Wainwright

We just got up and we just did it, my staff just ran with it. We knew that our students probably weren’t going to engage with the online platform, there is not great internet access within our town and a lot of our students don’t have access to computers at home. They really took on the paper learning that we sent home, we sent packages home every week and they really did engage with those packages. My teachers did a magnificent job, they had those packages ready every Thursday to drop to the post office and we knew that they would be delivered by our local postie and they worked it out with us so it worked well.

These students found it really difficult because they were back in isolation again. 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. Yes we were still exhausted, still scared, students were still scared because here we were again with another unknown but when we came back from COVID you could see the students needed to be back again, it was back in their safe zone, back where they had their Breakfast Club and their teachers and their friends, that was a positive to come back again.

Mark Scott

Michael how did your students and your school community deal with the disruption that COVID has bought?

Michael Blenkins

It varied, I think some were happy to have an extended holiday but that would be the minority. Our year advisors and their teams would phone and touch base with all families so there was regular contact just to see how kids were tracking not only academically but also how they were tracking in terms of their emotional needs. That was really good to have that sort of contact and like Michelle’s school we embraced Google Classroom and other forms of delivering curriculum amazingly well and so too did the staff in terms of alternate meeting procedures and so forth. It all worked incredibly well I must say.

Our Year 12 kids were quite anxious at times so we have put in other things in place to try and support them because they were quite angst driven about the HSC and university admission and so forth so we had them in for a few briefing sessions and held their hand as they did early entry applications and so forth.

Mark Scott

What has been your read on the disruption to learning and now they are back, about nine weeks kids were out of class, and some of that was holidays, but nine weeks is quite a long time. What has been your read of disruption to learning and how confident are you that you will be able to get kids back on track given the disruption?

Michael Blenkins

We are going to be running HSC study hall sessions throughout Term 3 so that the kids are not only just keeping on top of assessments and assignments and learning but also their actual exam preparation which is a real thing I have been pushing in the school. The kids feel as though they are being supported in that sense. Other things that we have done, we haven’t obviously had the HSC study days and other things that they would have normally had, but the one thing I have picked up is that the kids really see the value of their teachers and that there is no substitute for a teacher out the front engaging them and teaching them as opposed to just online learning. Again it is a silver lining to come out of this whole experience that teachers are more appreciated perhaps than they were 18 months ago.

Mark Scott

What is your read Michelle of how your students have gone while they have been out of school and what you have seen since they returned?

Michelle Wainwright

HSC students were the same as Michael, we are offering more classes for them, sport afternoons my teachers are up in the library and they are offering on-on-one sessions with our students and that the students know that they can come into those sessions. We are also just reassuring them that we are there for them and my teachers are there for them.

The other students have picked up greatly, we do reading clubs at lunchtime with their peers, we are involving them in wellbeing sessions within the school so that we are bringing the whole school together. They have picked up on their learning again. I have noticed they are more focused on their learning, the whole school from K-12. They are loving coming to school now, they are loving being engaged in their classrooms and our negative behaviour entries are lower than what they were beforehand.

Mark Scott

I have had some principals say to me that they have seen in a sense more anxiety amongst students which has generated in a sense more tension almost within the school are you not seeing that?

Michelle Wainwright

There is more anxiety but I think because they are more willing to go and see that counsellor or they are more willing to open up and discuss what has happened to them, the anxiety is lessening so the negative entries are lessening, it is really quite an eye-opener.

Mark Scott

When I spoke to John Hattie for this podcast he talked about the research that came out of New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquake and also Hurricane Katrina in the United States and said that even though there was disruption to learning, when the students were back there was a real focus on what needed to be done, all the unimportant things seemed to fade away and the students actually did quite well that year not a demonstrable fall away in performance. That is one encouraging piece of research.

A more sobering piece of research is research that has been done in Victoria after Black Saturday bushfires. It says the level of trauma on students in communities can have a longer and lingering affect that you see for some years down the track. Any initial reads on that or how are you thinking about the kind of support that is going to be needed for these students once the events of the first half of 2020 have gone?

Michelle Wainwright

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. It has changed our lives and it is going to change the way we live and the way we do things. I can see that support has to be ongoing because the further we get into the year the more children are coming forward and we know and we have been told to expect another spike towards the end of November.

Mark Scott

When it heats up?

Michelle Wainwright

Toward the anniversary and it heats up and we know that the town is still worried about fires, both towns are, because there are areas that haven’t been burnt so I see it really necessary to keep the support that we have at the moment as ongoing.

Mark Scott

What are your own secrets, as I said at the beginning you are both in the midst of it? You were out there fighting the fires Michael, you suffered profound loss at the home front Michelle, how do you juggle memories of that and experience of that with the daily responsibility of leading these communities?

Michelle Wainwright

We have good friendships, extremely good friendships, and we draw on those but going to school is what keeps me going. I see every student every day and they are really important and my town is important and that is what keeps me going. I can tell my students that what they see, I am not like that every day and every minute of the day and it is okay to be sad, and I will let them know that it is okay to be sad and it is okay to come and talk to me and let me know their feelings and we will get through this together as a whole town.

Mark Scott

Michael how do you reflect on the summer and what you have been through and the leadership you are expected to provide as part of the Rural Fire Service and now the leadership you have to provide into your school community?

Michael Blenkins

I would say the school had a leadership role there and quite simply we had to be that constant in the lives of the kids when so much had been lost, and that is a real responsibility but a real job that Mr Blenkins is still there and therefore it is still moving on. As I said a lot of our staff were affected so you had to hold it together for the whole school. We were buttressing other initiatives within the community as well, things perhaps like Rotary and organisations with mental health and The Shire for example I have been involved in a lot of things there as well. I have got a bit of an angle across the whole community.

The school has got a really important role to play there but in terms of me holding up to it the family was very important as well, colleagues, out of the woodwork, principals offering to take a day here or there if needed, they always said if you don’t think you can turn up for school or if you need some time out I would love to come up and take over Tumbarumba High School for three or four days. I did never need it, and I didn’t take it, but it was lovely to know that option was there. Again my DEL was always there but my family, the trivial side of dealing with, in our case six insurance claims was my wife’s responsibilities, and I certainly couldn’t have juggled dealing with that as well as running a school and leading a school, that would have really pushed me over the line. My family certainly put in a lot. Both my kids put in a lot during the fires.

Mark Scott

In any given year at any time, running a school is a demanding exhausting job because of the sheer humanity, all those students, all those teachers, all those parents. How has this year made you different as a leader? Do you approach the job in a different way having been through what you have been through?

Michael Blenkins

I really see our function in society and I will give you an example. Two kids (I won’t give their names), they are not kids now, I was on the fire ground with many of my former students, some were running communication centres 18 and 19 year-old girls that I had taught, some lads, who would never have rated highly with NAPLAN or HSC or School Certificate, were out there as deputy captain’s, salt of the earth people that we have a responsibility to acknowledge as students in our schools but fight tooth and nail to retain them in our communities because they are really essential to the fabric of rural communities. 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. I have learnt a lot through it.

Mark Scott

Michelle how are you different?

Michelle Wainwright

I know it brings out different characteristics in people but it is the support that has been given across the board and Michael is right because we are in a small town it is those students that you have taught that will back you up, that come out in the community and help everybody get through it. It makes you realise and it has made me realise that I can get through anything, but the town is really important and we need to come together as a community and work together. 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. It just reinforce 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. It has brought that to the forefront as well.

Mark Scott

What great stories and on behalf of everyone listening thanks for your leadership and thanks for your commitment to every student in your school and in your community and thanks for joining us today on The Every Student Podcast.

Michael Blenkins

Great pleasure.

Michelle Wainwright

Thank you.

Mark Scott

Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast. Or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation on Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au.

Thanks again and I will catch you next time.

End of transcript.

Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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