- Cancer Information
- Schools and teachers
- Cancer in the school community
- When a staff member has cancer
- The role of the principal
The role of the principal
If a staff member has cancer, the principal can play an important role in providing support.
Learn more about:
- Initial support
- Return to work
- When a family member has cancer
- Supporting other colleagues
- Supporting students and families
When a staff member informs the principal that they have cancer, they need a sensitive and sympathetic response. Aside from worrying about work, the person may be making difficult personal decisions. It can be helpful to remind them of any staff counselling services, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), that they and their family members can use.
If the person is newly diagnosed, they may feel like they are being bombarded with information. Rather than adding to this “information overload” in the initial conversation, the principal might want to set up a meeting at a later time and come prepared with relevant material, such as detailed information about working arrangements and leave entitlements. Download a copy of our Talking to your employee about cancer fact sheet for more suggestions.
It is important for the principal to respect a staff member’s preferences about how much they would like to disclose about their cancer, and who they would like to tell.
Many people with cancer find it helpful to talk to someone in a similar situation. If there is another staff member with cancer, the principal could put the employees in touch with one another (with their permission). Another option is for the staff member to contact someone with a similar experience through Cancer Council. They can call 13 11 20 and ask about Cancer Connect, the telephone peer support service, or explore the Cancer Council Online Community.
The principal can provide advice and guidance regarding changes to a staff member’s work schedule. The staff member may consider taking a break, adjusting their workload or arranging a flexible work schedule. The principal can help the staff member make these decisions in line with leave and relief staffing procedures.
Return to work
By law, employers must make reasonable adjustments for an employee affected by cancer or its treatment. These may involve physical adjustments, such as access to disabled bathroom facilities, or adjustments to workload.
When a staff member returns to work after a long absence, organising a return to work meeting can make the situation clear for all involved and help prevent misunderstanding among colleagues. It is helpful to develop a written return to work plan with input from the staff member’s health care team. Tailored to the staff member’s specific situation, the plan outlines any agreed adjustments and establishes a timeline.
There are several ways to reduce an employee’s anxiety and help them during their transition back to work. These can include:
- specifying regular meetings in the return to work plan to help the person manage their workload and talk about any concerns they may have (such as job security)
- adjusting their work schedule and load as agreed in the return to work plan
- making any necessary physical adjustments
- liaising with other staff (being a contact person or coordinating offers of help)
- proactively liaising with parents and students, if appropriate
- offering counselling/EAP support for the person and their family
- supporting the employee’s decisions and offering reassurance.
When a family member has cancer
The information in this chapter may also be helpful if a colleague’s partner, child or parent is diagnosed with cancer. The colleague is likely to need time off work to care for their family member. If the treatment hospital is a long way from home, they may require particular flexibility.
Working carers must juggle many demands alongside their workplace responsibilities. A supportive work environment can help them manage. For more information, download a copy of our Supporting working carers fact sheet.
Supporting other colleagues
When an employee is diagnosed with cancer, the principal can help to address any concerns that other staff may have. The staff member with cancer may ask the principal to liaise with colleagues on their behalf. Support should be offered to employees who are upset. If your school offers an EAP, staff can be referred to this service.
If an employee has to take a leave of absence, the principal can work with colleagues to organise substitutes for the absent employee. Most colleagues are likely to be flexible and accommodating, but a temporary substitute or permanent replacement may need to be arranged.
Supporting students and families
A staff member may wish to inform parents or students about their cancer diagnosis, but may be uncomfortable standing up in front of the class or calling parents to relay the news. The principal can offer support by coordinating how the information is shared. They can also liaise with any parents who are concerned and explain how the school will maintain the students’ continuity of education during the staff member’s absence.
It is important for the principal to talk to students regularly to assure them that the school is supporting their teacher and to let them know if their teacher will be taking time off. Principals can also remind students that school staff are available to support them.
Claire Tobin, Principal Medical Advisor, Department of Education and Training, VIC; Dr Antoinette Anazodo, Paediatric and Adolescent Oncologist, Sydney Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital, Director of The Sydney Youth Cancer Service, and Conjoint Senior Researcher, University of New South Wales, NSW; Lisa Barrow, Clinical Nurse Educator, Children’s Cancer Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, VIC; Margo Bulic, Psychosocial Support Worker, CanTeen, ACT; Amber Copeland, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Donna Drew, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Paediatric Oncology/Palliative Care, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, NSW; Allesha Fecondo, Education Consultant, Victorian Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, and Education Liaison, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen Australia, NSW; Pina Hutcheson, President, Catholic Primary Principals’ Association of WA; Cara Irvine, Year 8 Coordinator, Alfred Deakin High School, ACT; Andrew Long, Assistant Director, Policy and Research, Independent Schools Council of Australia, ACT; Dr Alistair Lum, Post-doctoral Research Fellow – Behavioural Sciences Unit, Sydney Children’s Hospital, University of New South Wales, NSW; Kristine Luszczynski, Learning Program Manager, Quality and Standards, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, NSW; Anita Neville, National Manager, Ronald McDonald Learning Program, Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, VIC; NSW Department of Education, NSW; Mandy Roney, Consumer; Shannon Rush, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality, SA; Luke Wade, Education and Career Support Consultant, Redkite, QLD.
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