Schools The road back from cancer

Gerry and colleagues. Photo: Meredith O’Shea.

When a leading teacher was diagnosed with cancer, he found his union and school community were there to support him.

A throat cancer diagnosis might lead most to despair, but Marnebek School Cranbourne teacher Gerry Burns instead for it made him strangely focused.

“I don’t think you really realise the enormity of it,” he says. “It shocks you, but you just need to get everything sorted, as opposed to thinking that this could potentially take me out.”

The father of four emigrated with his family from Belfast seven years ago and was newly elevated into a leadership role at Marnebek, a school that tailors educational programs for kids with physical and intellectual disabilities, when he got the bad news.

Realising he didn’t know where to start, it was a shock to discover that, unlike in the UK, even with health insurance he would have to wait three months before receiving any financial support. Centrelink wasn’t much use, as he wasn’t technically unemployed.

“That’s when I got in touch with the union,” he says. “Their advice was honestly invaluable, because you’re just really on your knees looking for a way out. You don’t look into the finer details.

“The AEU told me you can contact your health insurance company and contribute a little bit more every month to get paid almost immediately.”

Gerry’s principal and teaching colleagues at Marnebek were no less supportive. “Right from the outset, they delivered food packages and baskets loaded with gifts for the kids, especially at Christmas. Even envelopes of money, completely anonymously. So selfless.”

“When something like this happens, you just see a beautiful side of the people you work with.”

One teacher and former Hawthorn player, Russell Greene, arranged for a Hawthorn guernsey to be signed by the back-to-back premiership teams and auctioned it to raise funds, while Gerry’s good friend and ES support Ann Barkby would drive the school bus from Cranbourne to Gerry’s home on the Mornington Peninsula every month throughout his year-long absence.

“They were angels,” he insists. “I mean, it’s clichéd, but it really restores your faith in humanity. It changed my whole outlook on life, because you can get caught up in your own work and how that’s going, but when something like this happens and so many people step up to help you, you just see a beautiful side of the people you work with.”

And it wasn’t just the generosity of their gifts. Acting principal Kathy Weston helped coordinate a plan to make sure no additional pressure was put on Gerry while he recovered, removing him from all email chains and checking in on him personally. “It was all done very, very sensitively,” he says.

That sensitivity extended to his return to work at the start of this year. “They put my leadership position on hold immediately and then allowed me to decide if I wanted to step back into that, and if I wanted to be full-time or not.”

Opting not to resume the leadership gig to minimise stress levels, he did decide to remain full time but initially found it quite hard going. “I was still taking the odd day off and a few times I went home early, but there was never any pressure. They just sorted it right there and then, even when they were hard-pushed for staff.”

Gerry says he can’t speak highly enough of his colleagues and the kind, clear and concise support he received from the AEU. “I’m new to this country and it just reinforced how good a decision it was to come here. I just got Australian citizenship and I’m really glad I made that decision to bring my kids up here.”

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