Published on November 23, 2021

As we approach the end of 2021, I reflect on the year that was. Like many of my  colleagues and leaders of schools, I have continually needed to adjust my leadership style to our ‘new normal’ at HVGS.

This year, we started with vibrant communities of learning and engaging classrooms. We had a wide-ranging co-curriculum program outside of class and we had aspirations for the year ahead. As the COVID situation became increasingly concerning across the state, we monitored the situation. It was inevitable we would need to close, and we needed to prepare. 

On 14 July, Newcastle Herald interviewed me, eager to understand our response to a lockdown. I responded with, “our staff and students would be able to transition to remote learning at a moment’s notice” and “we had it covered.” Suddenly, those words were put into action and we were navigating our way through learning, working, and teaching from home. Online schooling left students isolated from their friends, family, and teachers.

But with thanks to our wonderful leaders and staff at HVGS we made it through to the other side. Critical to our success was that we remained calm and embraced an attitude of “we’ve got this.”

Throughout this experience, we recognised the importance of being prepared to continually adapt to the circumstances and provide clear and robust communication. 

Moving forward

As adults, historically, we have faced numerous stressors through social and economic upheaval, which forced us to meet great uncertainty in all aspects of our lives. At times, this uncertainty may have made us feel overwhelmed, making it incredibly difficult to make decisions or function to our full human potential. 

“When things become less predictable — and controllable —we experience an intense state of threat.”

Fiona Devlin

Threat leads to the ‘fight, freeze, or flight’ responses in the brain. It also leads to decreases in motivation, focus, agility, cooperative behaviour, self-control, a sense of purpose and meaning, and overall wellbeing. 

From the commencement of the pandemic, researchers worldwide have studied the impact on sociology and mental health, such as increased anxiety. Most people who experience mental health problems can learn to live with them, especially if they get help early on (Mental Health Foundation, 2020). But an abrupt change in the learning environment and limited social interactions and activities has posed an unusual situation, especially in young children’s developing brains.

The research reveals that students experience more significant work and sleep timing delays, greater increases in sitting, sleep duration, napping, depression and insomnia. Then more significant decreases in work hours, exercise time, and sleep regularity. A long term absence from routine and increased uncertainty may present new situations for us to consider as leaders of schools and teachers.

A focus on wellbeing and opportunities for students to socialise with their peers will be paramount upon our return to school. When educators work together with their psychology teams, the student and educator experience of feeling overwhelmed can become more manageable. 

Tips from HVGS psychology team


1. Set expectations with realistic optimism

We can train our brains to do well when we ‘expect the unexpected.’ It is essential to know the simple tools at our disposal to deal with unexpected challenges and when to use them. 

To be successful, we need to:

  • be accepting of the reality of the situation 
  • remind ourselves, things will work out and that the moment will pass
  • reflect on the skills and strategies that got us through past challenges and
  • adopt and practice self-compassion. 

2.  Lift to big-picture thinking

Big picture thinking allows us to thrive because of the benefits of adopting a higher perspective. Actively and purposively, deciding to consider our view helps us accept the reality of most situations without the big emotions. 

We can then focus on what is within our control and develop solutions and strategies that serve us well and foster hope. Flourishing and thriving is then so much more possible. 

No matter what the world brings to us, if we can generate new perspectives, things will work out – because we are working them out.

3.    Foster positive relationships

Developing positive relationships is critical in assuring our wellbeing and the health and happiness of those around us. We can foster positive relationships by: 

  • Being present when you are with the important people in your lives
  • Considering the essential ingredients – kindness and compassion, honesty, forgiveness, trust, time and patience
  • Actively listening.

Good quality leadership teams that foster a sense of calm and adaptability will be the key to surviving the unpredictable in schools in the future.



Fiona Devlin

Fiona Devlin

Fiona is the Acting Principal and Head of Senior School at Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Master of Education from Melbourne University and a Bachelor of Applied Science from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Her teaching specialty is in the areas of Senior Biology, Science and PDHPE.