Belfast Telegraph

How Northern Ireland politicians have failed our schools, by teachers' leader Susan Thompson

The new president of the Ulster Teachers' Union, Susan Thompson, tells Leona O'Neill what she hopes to achieve during her year in the top job and the struggles facing the sector

Susan Thompson is vice principal at Hart Memorial Primary School and president of the Ulster Teachers' Union
Susan Thompson is vice principal at Hart Memorial Primary School and president of the Ulster Teachers' Union

Susan Thompson (38) was born in Portadown and attended the school she is now vice-principal of, Hart Memorial Primary. She was recently appointed as president of the Ulster Teachers' Union.

She lives with her partner Dr Ross White, research director in clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, and her daughter Nicole (11) in Portadown.

Q. Did you always want to be a teacher?

A. I knew I wanted to teach from the young age of 14. I always loved helping children in my family with reading, homework activities and also younger children around the community where I lived as a young child.

Q. What are the best things about teaching?

A. Teaching is never the same on any two days, it brings many, many joyous moments into your life. I love the rapport you build with each individual child.

The opportunity to ignite the learning spark and seeing a child grow with confidence and independence is the best experience any teacher can have.

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It's a little bit like when a parent sees their child do something for the first time, e.g. play their first game of rounders, perform in a dance competition, ride their bike, read a sentence.

It brings happiness to a teacher when a child can take that risk in the classroom and then apply the skills to other areas of their learning journey.

I love my job and have a desire to teach for as long as I physically and mentally am able to.

Teaching is great, however it brings many challenges along the way. Challenges we as teachers face due to the challenges our children face in today's society are complexity challenges, social challenges, anxiety challenges and not to mention if anyone has a learning challenge.

Teachers embrace all of these challenges and still cater for every child in their class under a very restrained school budget that at times pushes them to the limit.

Resources are at an all-time low in our schools because of constant cutbacks from the Education Authority.

Susan Thompson
Susan Thompson

Pressures increase for the teaching profession with workload and accountability, but without adequate specialist support, training, consultative advice, financial cooperation and leadership direction from our Education Authority.

Q. How rewarding is teaching?

A. I believe teachers are rewarded not financially for their excellent role in the classroom, but by relationship building with their children.

When I can engage with a child at their level, I can see the difference it makes in that child's emotional journey in learning.

For me it is not about the child being a number on a spreadsheet stating a score which is meaningless to them. I value their health, their happiness, their ability to socialise with peers, their willingness to try, building their inner self to communicate and feel valued members of my classroom.

Q. Is teaching a tough job?

A. Yes, there is no doubt teaching is one of the most challenging but rewarding professions that I know of.

We are qualified professionals who feel undermined by the Department of Education. The department fail to provide teachers with the ability to judge their pupils professionally, even though we have a degree to do this.

They try to dictate what we should do and when we should do this, even though we as teachers are the professionals who are committed to our role in the classroom and breathe it, see it, hear it each and every day.

Susan Thompson
Susan Thompson

Teachers need to feel valued as professionals, just like the health service values doctors, nurses, dentists etc.

Let us teachers get on with teaching and use our professional judgment to assess, plan, evaluate, liaise and lead our schools as we know best to.

Q. What is your role as vice-principal at Hart Memorial Primary School like?

A. My role as VP at Hart Memorial PS is a busy one.

I wear many hats under this umbrella term SENCo - numeracy coordinator, deputy child protection officer, fire safety officer, P3 teacher and others that the principal may wish to delegate from time to time. It's all in a day's work.

It is a great experience having these responsibilities and at times there are stressful days. However, I thrive on the challenges that are presented from time to time.

Hart Memorial PS is a large town school on the outskirts of Portadown.

We currently have 453 children enrolled at the school and it is an extremely busy environment which offers the community and children a wealth of opportunity to take part in so many wide-ranging activities.

Our school is a buzzing hub every day.

Q. You have recently taken up the role of president of the Ulster Teachers' Union. What does that entail?

A. The president is the principle spokesperson for the union, alongside the general secretary, Jacquie White.

The president presides at all meetings of the central executive committee and at conference.

The president ensures all business is properly conducted, advises branch officers, branch committees in respect of matters arising relating to procedures and interpretation of the rules of the union.

The president campaigns on issues that affect UTU members.

Q. What do you hope to achieve during your year as president?

A. My year of presidency will bring many new challenges, but my hope is that a Northern Ireland Assembly will resume.

I would love an opportunity for UTU to engage with an Education Minister again and discuss the issues we all face on the ground level within our schools' across the province.

My ambition is to serve our members with an empathetic, supportive and professional manner.

It is a privilege to serve all 6,000-plus members as president of UTU.

Q. How has the lack of working government impacted on teachers and the classrooms?

A. The issues raised in our schools across Northern Ireland aren't going away and many cannot be resolved due to the fact we are hanging on and waiting for a party to take a seat again in government.

UTU recognises it's not just education that is drastically suffering, but health as well.

Education is at an all-time low. We have stretched the school budgets, we have lost more contributions to pension funds this year again. We are struggling to keep our heads afloat.

Teaching has never been so strained.

Aside from financial pressures, we need an Education Minister to listen to the teachers' voice.

We are providing this country with the next generation of citizens and educating them to the highest of standards.

We as teachers aren't failing our children, the government is.

Q. Are our teachers able - despite the challenges they face - to give our children the education they deserve?

A. Of course. Teachers are professionals who are willing to dip their hand in their own pocket to subsidise the classroom expenses.

Schools have been running on the goodwill of teachers for decades.

Q. Cutbacks are gruelling and ceaseless. How has this made teaching more difficult?

A. There are less resources for each classroom, lack of surplus money to pay for after school provision, school trips have been limited or ceased in some schools.

Classroom assistants have been cut in the last few years as school principals are placed in awkward positions and forced to make huge decisions about how best to manage an unreasonable budget.

Q. If you were in charge of the education budget, how would you spend it?

A. I would do it a lot differently from what is currently happening.

A lot of the budget is spent on trialling unnecessary pilot schemes which never accumulate to much more than a paper or ICT trial.

Millions of pounds has been misspent in years past due to trialling new initiatives.

If it's not broken don't try to fix it.

The education and assessment measures that schools use are best fitting for their children and area, so it's about time the department realise teachers can assess by professional judgment and standardised tests which are currently used.

Education budget needs to have a huge revamp. It needs to amalgamate with health services.

For example, if a child in school has autism, then health services should work together with schools to provide adequate financial support for the teacher to cater for the child's needs and equip schools with the necessary resources and training required.

The education budget needs to be fairly distributed across all schools. The education budget money needs to adequately resource schools based on the needs of their pupils and their communities.

Q. Your role as president means you are away from the classroom. What do you miss about it?

A. Oh absolutely, 100%, I will miss the day to day contact with the children.

I love the interaction with the children. They bring a real light to school environments.

As I teach P3, at this age they "love their teacher", so that is an encouraging factor each day to my role.

I coach girls' netball at school, I will miss the team and taking training sessions, however, I might have to squeeze in a few hours of coaching come September. Some things you just can't give up.

We take part in the ABC League fixtures. My team are dedicated, determined and defend well. They didn't win this year, but it's not about the winning, it's the sheer personal drive and team approach to always do your best in each performance that I ask them for.

I am very proud of their playing skills this year and love the sport.

Q. What words of wisdom and encouragement would you offer a young person considering the career?

A. Go into the teaching career with your eyes wide open. It should not be a second career option.

Only apply to teach if you have a desire to make a difference in every child's life.

Teaching is an art, it deserves the best you can give and you are teaching the next generation of citizens in our community.

So remember, if you model good manners, respect, empathy and perseverance, then hopefully what you model you produce.

Q. How do you relax?

A. I am a keen runner when the weather is good. I enjoy walking and attend the gym regularly. A multiple of gym classes keep me alert and help me to refocus and self-regulate.

Exercise and positivity is the key to a happy life.

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