Five Questions With… Jill Thompson

Posted on Sunday, January 15th, 2023

How would it feel to work in your dream job? Well, you can ask Assistant Head of School Jill Thompson! Despite completing her undergraduate degree in administration of justice, she pivoted to work in education as a more proactive way to support children. She finds her inspiration in Gaynor’s co-founder Yvette Siegel-Herzog, and Ms. Siegel’s exceptional perspective on learning and Gaynor’s mission.

We sat down with Jill for the latest installment of our “Five Questions With…” series to learn more about her passion for education and her dedication to the mission of individualized education at Stephen Gaynor School.

Have you always wanted to work in education? 

Yes I did. It started when we had a program in my high school where you could volunteer in an early childhood program or in a special education class. I took that opportunity and volunteered in both, and loved them both. I think I knew then that I wanted to be in education but didn’t acknowledge it at that point. 

What did you do from there, did you go to school for education? 

My undergrad was actually administration of justice because I thought I wanted to work with juveniles in the probation system. I did my internship in that, and while I was there I felt that that work was more reactive, and I realized that I wanted to do something with a more proactive approach to supporting young children instead, and that’s what sparked my interest in education. 

So then I went back to school and got prerequisites to enter a graduate program for education! 

How did you find yourself here at Gaynor?

Well, I had been in special education for about 15 years prior to this. I was working as the head of school at a special education school in Washington DC, and wanted to move closer to my family who live outside of Philadelphia. I saw this job posted a year before actually applying for the job, and I remember reading it and saying this would be my dream job! But at that point the school that I was a head of school at was a startup school and I didn’t feel like it was the right time for me to leave. Then luckily a year later I saw the position for assistant head posted again, and I said, “Oh, this is a sign, it’s my dream job,” and so then decided to apply the second time it was posted. 

What keeps you coming back to work every day?

I’ve worked in several special education settings and I think this is one that is really true to its mission. A lot of special education schools recognize that education needs to be individualized to really support and unlock each child’s potential, but here I feel like we truly are living that mission. Every day, whether it’s a teacher meeting or an administrative meeting, we talk about what is best for that child and what that individual child needs in order to continue developing, and I think it’s rare that a school is living that mission on a daily basis. So I would say that, and then the dedication of our faculty and the support of our parents that really makes it a unique community to work in. Which not only keeps me coming back every day, but makes me really enjoy the job on a daily basis. 

Assistant Head of School Jill Thompson holds a microphone in front of stage curtains in Gaynor's Performing Arts Center.What are you up to when you’re not at Gaynor? 

I have a young daughter, so spending time with my daughter and family. If I found the time I would love to run more; it’s rare that I can fit that in. But friends and family are most important to me, so spending time with them outside of school is how I try to prioritize my time. 

Who or what has been your greatest inspiration or influence? 

Oh Yvette Siegel-Herzog, without a doubt. I mean, this school wouldn’t exist without her and Mimi Michaels

Going back to one of the previous questions, we really live our mission and what this school was built on is what we talk about every single day, and I think that wouldn’t be possible without Yvette. I feel lucky that she started this school, lucky that I was chosen to work at this school and lucky that I continue to be able to hear Yvette’s perspective on things. She talks about how learning should be fun for students, and I wholeheartedly agree with that. When you see the students walk in here every day with smiles, you know that what she envisioned and this mission that she designed is really happening, and I think that’s so inspirational. Any rare chance I can get to still hear her perspective and inspiration, I always walk away from that reflecting on it and thinking about it more, so I would say she’s probably the biggest influence. 

She’s incredibly wise, but also knows what is at the heart of it. And like I said, recognizing that children need to have fun when they’re learning. It definitely aligns with what I’ve always believed and that learning can be fun and interactive and engaging and multisensory. 

I really do think our students are lucky to be able to get that; you see that when you walk in the door and you see them smiling, and I walk through the classrooms and a lot of times they may not even realize they’re learning because they are having so much fun. I love seeing that.