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What I Learned in 31 Years Practicing School Social Work

By Dr. Laurel E.Thompson, SSWAA Board Member

It was Monday, October 9, 1989, a sunny day full of promising billowy, blue clouds in the Florida skies when I started my School Social Work journey. My sunniness rivaled that of the weather and I was full of passion and a strong resolve to keep my promise to positively impact the lives of the students committed to my professional care. During the day as I was introduced to my colleagues in the department, I was struck with the stability of the staff. There was no evidence of staff turnover. I distinctly remember a colleague who reported she was with the department for more than 20 years. I was shocked and lightly vowed to myself that I would never stay in that position for so many years. Note to self, never say never until you have tried it!

Fast forward, I remained in that department for 31 very professionally satisfying years!

Why I Stayed

I stayed for the breadth and depth of the experience and the many opportunities for growth and positive impact that the position afforded. I began as a school social worker serving four schools – one high, one middle, and two elementary schools. I spent one full day in each school and in those early days, Friday was considered an “office day.” This was when all meetings were held, peer consultations flourished and team building naturally occurred, as we shared common space to eat, brainstorm, and plan interventions for our students and their families. I then served as a teen parent social worker in one area of the district and was soon elected to serve as team leader for this specialized area of practice. A few years later our Director retired and I was the successful candidate selected to fill that position. For fifteen years the department grew exponentially, providing services in mental health, attendance, behavior intervention, child abuse and neglect prevention, family counseling, foster care, homeless education, mentoring, and social work. The department literally became the “heart” of the district such that we were involved in most major district initiatives. We wrote and were awarded several million dollars in grant funding to create innovative programs, thus expanding the services to meet the identified needs of our students and their families. Most of the staff have longevity on the job and usually only left for retirement!

What I Learned

As a school social worker, serving in many roles in one district for 31 years, I carefully observed, learned a lot, and practiced with both my head and my heart. I learned and always remembered that the students and their families were the clients and that all decisions made had to be in their best interest. The following is a list of very important lessons that served me well, as I sought to be the best servant leader:

  • Know the rules of the game

  • Find the “invisible” rule book

  • It is not personal – develop a thick skin

  • Lead with integrity

  • Talk with people, not about people

  • Know all aspects of each person’s job

  • Lead from behind and let others think they are leading

  • Share the spotlight; highlight the work of staff

  • Use strength-based approach for assignments

  • Mentor others

  • Be willing to admit a mistake, or many mistakes!

  • Take others along with you

  • Provide opportunities for staff to grow

  • Advocate for staff

  • Develop a succession plan

  • Know and network with the power brokers in the District and in the community

  • Understand the politics, BUT refrain from playing politics

  • Hire the best candidate; find staff who are brighter than you!

  • Work on building a positive department culture

  • Celebrate with staff – birthdays, weddings, births, and acknowledge challenges such as illnesses and/or deaths

What I Would Change – In Retrospect:

In all honesty, I would not change much as all the experiences were great lessons that successfully propelled the work forward. But, I would:

  • Be more savvy regarding salary negotiations, understanding that the starting point and the ending points are inextricably linked!

  • Kindly say “no” at times, and

  • Understand when it is appropriate to say “no” without completing professional or social suicide.


  • Know your mission

  • Know your value

  • Know your worth

  • Know your supporters

  • Set professional boundaries

  • Autograph your work with excellence!

And finally, I recommend that you be very self-aware, evaluate yourself, identify your strengths, and find a job that utilizes those strengths, has growth opportunities, and settle in to do your best work while you impact students and their families, for this generation, and many more to come. A seed planted now will reap great dividends for now and for future generations. The time is right for School Social Work!


Dr. Laurel E. Thompson is the recently retired Director of Student Services for Broward County Public Schools, a role in which she served for over a decade, supervising a staff of 260 school social workers, family therapists, instructional personnel and administrative supports.

She received a Ph.D. in Social Work from Barry University a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University, and a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Social Work from Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York City. For nine years, Dr. Thompson worked in administration in the field of gerontology and then pivoted to spend over 31 years in school social work services.

During these years Dr. Thompson worked arduously to develop policies, create programs, grow staff, and build collaborations with community partners to support the students in Broward County Public Schools. She wrote and was awarded grants in excess of $8.3M to develop innovative programs to support the academic achievement of all students and especially black males. One such signature mentoring program implemented during her tenure was the Mentoring Tomorrow’s Leaders Program that was initially funded by a $5M award from the United States Department of Education.

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