Q&A: 8 Questions with Dr. Heather Thompson, Sandler School Director

Friday, May 14, 2021
Dr. Heather Thompson

We recently sat down with Heather Thompson, Ph.D., LCSW , the newly-appointed director of the Sandler School of Social Work, to get her take on the profession of Social Work, what inspired her to choose this path, her must-have favorite books and more.

Setting the textbook definition aside, what is your personal definition of Social Work?
"Social Work is about seeing the value in helping others. Whether it is working with individuals, families, groups of people, or communities, social work aims to improve the lives of others while also recognizing the inherent strengths they may not see within themselves. Both words – “social” and “work” – are critical in understanding what it is that we do. We WORK hard to make a difference in this world, and we also understand various SOCIAL/societal factors, that influence the lived experiences of individuals, families, and communities."
What three adjectives best describe the Phyllis & Harvey Sandler School of Social Work?
"Supportive, skilled, evolving"
How has the Social Work profession most changed in the past 10 years?
"The Social Work profession has gained recognition for the immense impact we, as social workers, have in various aspects of society. While the world has begun to recognize the impact of trauma on mental health, social workers have been on the frontlines of this work for more than 100 years. We are beginning to see social workers recognized more and more for being the leading provider of mental health services in this country. A great example in the state of Florida is the desire to hire a social worker at every school to respond to students’ socioemotional needs and community-wide challenges. Additionally, a bill was passed in Florida indicating that more than half of those hired as child protective investigators in the State should have a social work degree."
How do you hope the profession changes in the next 10 years?
"Over the next 10 years, I anticipate that social workers will continue to be vital members of interdisciplinary teams. We will become leaders in various areas of practice, integrating our knowledge of systems and how we as individuals are also a part of the larger context we live in. Social workers will be known as the change makers and innovators of creating a more just and equitable society for all."
What inspired you to enter the field of Social Work?
"I, like many others, did not expect to go into the field of social work. For years, I actually trained to be a postsecondary (middle and high school) math teacher. In fact, I’ve tutored and taught at several different schools. However, it was my experiences sitting down with a 7th grade student that inspired me to pursue a different path. When I heard about the challenges this student faced, while trying to take a comprehensive exam to advance to the next grade, I realized my calling was to help society in a different way. Through a winding road, I found out about social work and what social workers can do. Fast forward, and decades later, I am still so proud to be in this field and know this is exactly where I was always meant to be."
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
"It might be surprising for some people to know I was the first person in my family to move away from my hometown and attend a university. It makes me truly appreciate the experience that some of our students have as first-generation college students."
If you could only keep two books, what would they be?
"This is a funny question, as I actually read a lot more research articles than books. However, I guess that is probably true for a lot of researchers. One of my favorite books that I’ve read recently is Right Color, Wrong Culture: The Type of Leader Your Organization Needs to become Multiethnic. The book is an easy read and speaks to how we define “multiethnic” or “multicultural” versus what it truly means. Also, in addition to being a clinical social worker, I am also a marriage and family therapist. So, another favorite book of mine is the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman. He is a lead research in marriage and family therapy, with more than 40 years of research in his ‘Love Labs.’ Much of the work is done alongside his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, who is a psychotherapist. Their tips, or principles, are not only practical, but also based on research and science."
What is your greatest joy in being the Director of the Sandler School of Social Work?
"I have to say that I do this job for two reasons – to celebrate our students and to celebrate our faculty. We have some of the most amazing students in our Sandler School. They are bright, innovative, passionate and the next generation of social workers. I am continually impressed by their stories and delighted to see them evolve from eager students into professional, competent and compassionate social workers. And, the faculty at the Sandler School of Social Work are truly top-notch. Year after year, students identify our faculty as extremely supportive and models of what social workers should be like in the community. In fact, many of our faculty continue to make a direct impact in the local and broader communities. Our faculty are leaders in various areas of research and also exceptional educators in teaching the next generation of social workers about our profession, its values and how to exemplify the qualities of a compassionate and competent social worker. My favorite time of the year is any time we can celebrate something that they are doing or have accomplished. They, our students and faculty, are the reason it is my pleasure to serve as the Director of the Sandler School of Social Work."


Heather and Nic

Dr. Thompson and her husband, Nic, at ‘Top of the Rock’ in New York City, demonstrating 
the importance of work-life balance and the need for self-care (e.g. enjoying time with those you love).