– by Leanne Esposito

One teacher’s journey into education and technology takes her along a path of selfless devotion

Alfred Adler posited Birth Order Theory as one factor in determining a child’s personality and choice of vocation.

Perhaps the theory helps us to understand why special education teacher Sue Thompson is, and always has been, dedicated to helping others.

General characteristics of a first-born child are reliability, conscientiousness, and cooperation – traits for which Sue is well-known.

As the oldest of four children, to a mother who had contracted polio as a child, it was Sue who helped to look after her siblings. After marrying the love of her life, Craig Thompson – a Civil Engineer – she said children were a priority.

“I had a passion to have children, so I had them young, like many others at the time,” Sue said.

Caring has always been her vocation, however it wasn’t until she had spent many years working in educational settings that she found the courage, and confidence, to study teaching.

Each small step she took in life was leading her along a path to the Hervey Bay Special School, where she has been a teacher now for 13 years.

Wherever her three children, Steven, Scott and Jonelle were learning, Sue was right there beside them.

From home schooling her eldest child, to a kindy volunteer, then working as a teacher aide, Sue was always hands-on.

Her first paid position was supporting a disabled child at the kindergarten her youngest child attended.

After moving from New Zealand to Brisbane, Sue obtained an aged care certificate.

Soon the family settled in Hervey Bay where she worked at Masters Lodge on weekends, and part-time as a teacher’s aide at the Hervey Bay Special School during the week.

At 40, she made the brave decision to enrol in a university degree course in education.

Sue’s life changed, and the lives of many students have been positively impacted ever since.

“I had various colleagues and friends urging me,” Sue said.

“Finally, I bit the bullet. I had to get over my own insecurities.

“I recall the first paper I handed in after working on, and agonising over it for hours and hours. I received a High Distinction and that was it.

“It confirmed that I was on my way.”

She said it wasn’t always easy juggling work, life and family, as she now reflects on her learning path’s journey, but wants us to know that anyone can do it.

“You just put one foot in front of the other and you finish. I had to work hard at balancing. I took five years and studied every summer semester.

“The kids were older by that stage and I am a strong believer in instilling independence.

“They always had their tasks, and it’s good to give kids organisational skills to develop them as a human being.”

Even though she had worked in special education, all her Professional Experience sessions, (commonly called ‘prac’), were in mainstream schools.

Ever the adventurer, Sue did a three-week prac at St Paul’s Community School on Moa Island in the Torres Strait.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know and wanted to experience that. I needed to find out why I was so passionate about special education,” she said.

Successfully she integrated her study commitments with her part-time teacher’s aide position at the Hervey Bay Special School. During that time, she received ongoing professional development and often attended conferences in her own time. Her passion for technology and learning grew as she developed new skills.

She said that securing a full-time permanent position (for new graduates) was extremely competitive at the time and that she had her doubts. The school had none.

“When I left uni it was really scary because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said.
“Teachers weren’t being offered a lot of work in 2007.

“I was really grateful for, and also astounded at the offer of employment.

“Not many students of my cohort were offered permanent work.”

The Hervey Bay Special School has steadily increased its numbers to over 100 students in 2020.

It has always had a strong focus on technology and Sue’s secondary school students, most of whom are non-verbal and with under-developed motor function, follow a highly individualised curriculum.
There are interactive televisions and specially built programs which are adapted to an individual student’s needs.

“Personally, I have a huge interest in technology and use it to motivate my kids and I’m using it to help them communicate and access their curriculum,” she said.

Together they have achieved great outcomes.

Utilising tools such as a Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD) book, which contains symbols and words supported by iPad functionality, some non-verbal students are now beginning to communicate.

“It’s never been a better time to have a disability,” she said.

“Technology has come so far from when I first started as a teacher. You need to keep changing things up, from year to year.

“It is very fluid and you have to adapt.”

While observing Sue in the Special School setting, I saw first-hand how she delivers an unwavering focus to her students, meeting their extremely complex cognitive, communication and physical needs.

Each day delivers new and multiple challenges as she adjusts from teacher to counsellor, carer or nurse in a matter of seconds.

It is clear to see that Sue Thompson is an extremely humble individual who is a born educator and carer, and that in following her life’s passion our society is richer for her endeavours.

“If my story can encourage just one person to follow their heart, I will be happy,” she said.