‘Buildings were lost, our school wasn’t’: Education in a changing climate

As the Lismore floodwaters recede, a community is redefining education.

The Lismore floods have devastated the entire community, with their impacts extending not just to every individual but also to the institutions at the heart of the Lismore community. One such institution is the Living School, a not-for-profit, progressive, independent school established in 2020. Earlier this year the school was completely flooded, with harrowing images on their website showing the second storey of the school poking its head above a sea of water. 

The school’s small campus was originally intended to push students out into the community as part of their philosophical approach to community-based learning. Even before the floods, classes were held at the nearby TAFE, in the library, in galleries and on a houseboat, purpose-bought to float maths and science students down the river as they learned. However, with the campus rendered unusable by water damage, they were forced to relocate first to the Lennox Head Rugby Clubhouse, then to the nearby farm of Principal John Stewart, before finally settling on the grounds of the Southern Cross University Campus.

The floods have forced the school and its community to conduct a conceptual reassessment of what school and community mean. Jonny Wouters, a teacher at the Living School noted that, “assumptions I had made about life that I thought were stable were suddenly washed away and I had to regain a sense of the landscape because the landscape was different internally and externally.” Another teacher, Ant Lewry, reflected on the isolating experience of his home going underwater, “I was on my own. I couldn’t reach anybody. I had never experienced anything like this before. I had never been more scared than in those moments, on that day, in those hours. I had never felt more alone. The fear that I felt then, as someone who has experienced a fair bit of trauma in my life – nothing compared to that day.” With characteristically inadequate support from the government, the community supported itself, “It felt like the most obvious and only thing to do – be there for one another”. Jonny described the experience of teachers forced to appropriate the role of SES workers and rescue their neighbours and friends, as he did for Ant. “Our dear friend who lives up the road, we went to go get him – on a kayak – as the road wasn’t drivable. His terrified face along with all of the terrified faces we passed. We kept each other sane.”

Unbelievably, alongside these accounts, is the story that the school, not as a campus but as a place of learning, was only closed for five days. Moving between their various classrooms in the Rugby Club, on the farm and at the University over the subsequent weeks, it becomes clear that a school is not just the building that springs to mind when we hear the word. Rather, it is a concept. It is a spirit, a philosophy and an environment, an idea that is perhaps more acutely felt in communities such as Lismore. 

Sandringham Primary School 15km outside of Melbourne, which was largely destroyed by a fire in early 2020, reflects a similar approach to learning and community. Principal Lousie Neave noted that “In our communication with families we were mindful to refrain from saying ‘our school is lost’ or ‘we need to rebuild our school’, because a school is more than buildings. School is community and people, it’s familiar faces, classmates and amazing teachers. And we didn’t lose that. Buildings were lost, our school wasn’t.”

An understanding has emerged from these two communities of what schools are. Ant notes he is “not grateful for the pain but for the growth and for the love and connection that has come from it.” Ultimately, although inspiring, these communities should not be forced to rely upon themselves in such ways. With tokenistic emissions reductions targets, our government denies the science and existence of climate change that contributes to extreme events such as the Lismore floods. It then fails to provide adequate support and relief, perhaps most appallingly encapsulated by MP Peter Dutton’s GoFundMe for flood victims in his electorate of Dickson. Matthew Wade, writer for The Conversation, decried such a passing around of the hat suggesting that, “For many, Dutton’s campaign reflected a wider lack of planning and urgency to mitigate extreme weather events, but it also reveals the everyday normalisation of crowdfunding. What does it say about the role of government, the reciprocal duties of citizens, and how we can best support each other in difficult times, when no less than the federal defence minister turns to crowdfunding?”

Continually asking communities to show resilience is “not ok for anybody. It’s not good modelling. It’s hurtful…I think we are sometimes expected to be resilient in an unhealthy way,” says Ant. While the floods have forced positive reconceptualisations and understandings of learning, community and support, we must stop hoping that people are resilient and start planning for a future fraught with climate disasters.