An Interview with Joni Thompson

Updated: Mar 19, 2019

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Our Lady Tepeyac High School is a Roman Catholic girls’ secondary school deeply rooted in the Little Village neighborhood that, without regard to ability to pay or immediate preparedness for high school study, provides a multicultural educational experience developing each young woman to her full intellectual and spiritual potential in an environment that values learning linked to faith, family, and community. President Thompson gives us some added insight into this Archdiocesan school.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the issues in Catholic education that you have seen that have been a concern at Our Lady of Tepeyac?


President Thompson: Some of the major issues I consider to be unique over the last 28+ years are the shift in understanding the unique benefits of single gender education, the cost of educating students and funding long term projects.


Dr. Knight: Could you tell us some issues that talk about your background in Catholic education.


President Thompson: My background in Catholic education transpired at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School, at least on a professional level. I was educated in a Catholic grade school my last two years before moving on to a girl’s Catholic high school, where I learned that my voice would be heard, my story validated, leading me to much of my current work. After serving as principal of OLT, I now lead all advancement efforts as the president, for the last 8 years. As a parent of 3, all my children attended Catholic grade and high schools.


Dr. Knight: You teach in a Catholic school so you might not have much religious diversity. Would you make a comment about it?


President Thompson: The religious diversity in my school is minimal; the majority of students are Catholic, a small number are Christian.


Dr. Knight: Would you please tell us about your philosophy of leadership?


President Thompson: My philosophy of leadership is simple: support one’s colleagues; work harder than any expectations of others; listen carefully to board members and volunteers; have a passion for your work and you will never have a day that is not focused and productive.


Dr. Knight: What are some ways you have dealt with challenges in regard to the students or parents and how did you find solutions?


President Thompson: Challenges with regard to students or parents of course will happen. The key is to listen carefully, with the ultimate goal to understand rather than to be understood. To keep the conversation and the outcome focused on our school’s values: opportunity, service, unity and excellence. If the target on both sides of the matter is focused on those values, solutions can be easily found.


Dr. Knight: What advice would you give to a new high school teacher on his/her first year of teaching?


President Thompson: My advice on first year of teaching: be the teacher that you needed at tough times when you were in school. Reach out to your colleagues and talk about your classroom 24/7; dive deep into the first year of experiences, enjoy the opportunity to be on the other side of the desk. Remember that those who can, do.


Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your school’s mentoring program and how you interact with parents?


President Thompson: Our school has a mentoring program that follows the girls all four years; the program is centered on relationships with adults who care. I interact with parents in ways to support their work on raising their children through our parent club. I sit back and listen; I honor the strength of family in their culture. I use humor to share stories of teenage trends I’ve observed for the past 28+ years. I share with them the focus on academics in terms of the importance of setting goals for the developmental health of their daughters.


Dr. Knight: Does the fact that your school is located in a metropolitan area make a difference to what happens in your school?


President Thompson: Our school is located in a neighborhood, an old neighborhood, which does make a difference to what happens in the school; that difference is that we can focus on service to the community. We can also absorb all the good that the culture of the community has.


Dr. Knight: How do you promote rigor in your school and at the same time hold onto the beauty of the mission of the school?


President Thompson: We support rigor in the school, with the simple philosophy that we take each young woman where she is and bring her forth on her path to a graduation and college acceptance. The rigor is required so she can gain the necessary skills and stamina to make it through and be successful in college.


Dr. Knight: Explain how your involvement in using data benefits your school


President Thompson: For the past decade, 100% of all graduating seniors have gone to college. For the past few years, 30-50% of the girls are the first in their family to graduate high school, 80% the first to attend college. As the president, not the principal, I do not use data on a regular basis in regard to the students. I use data in regard to enrollment and fundraising.


Dr. Knight: In what ways do the Professional Learning Communities help your school function?


President Thompson: As PLC’s, the faculty and staff meet weekly; the focus shifts from grade level to subject level. Plus, as PLC’s, we focus on retention, always looking at the individual needs of fresh women and transfer students first, then the larger enrollment.


Dr. Knight: What are the most important issues in your school in regard to safety?


President Thompson: Safety is a focus of the school. Our value of unity is the foundation of our safety plan; the girls want to protect the school and desire their community to be better than what may be happening on the streets of Chicago. Teachers are always out front before and after school, while available and interactive with activities, etc. Since the school is a part of the parish, the community respects the building and all who enter.


Dr. Knight: Why is a sense of humor so important for the successful running of a school?


President Thompson: A sense of humor is important because it gives a sneak peek into you as a person; it makes it all a bit more human rather than straight up professional. It makes the day more pleasant.


Dr. Knight: How do you see your understanding of the Catholic Church working at OLT?


President Thompson: Tepeyac is important for the Catholic Church because we live our faith by doing for others; we’ve built a strong school community that is the reflection of God’s love.


President Thompson has been an outstanding leader in a single sex school and has empowered her classes to take seriously their leadership roles as women.

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