Support staff spotlight: Susan Ross

Thirty years ago, the Independent Teachers’ Association changed its name to the more inclusive Independent Education Union to reflect our coverage of support staff. As we celebrate World Support Staff Day this year, meet Susan Ross, who’s both a teacher’s aide and an IEU rep.

Susan Ross is a teacher’s aide at St Leo’s Catholic College Wahroonga, where she’s been an IEU member for almost 18 years and a rep for more than a decade.

Ross assists teachers with implementing programs and prompts students to complete their tasks in class. “We’re not there for behaviour management – that’s the teachers’ job,” Ross said. “One of my bosses many years ago said we’re ‘the good fairies’ of the classroom.”

Personal connection

Ross’s role as a teacher’s aide enables her to build a unique and supportive relationship with the students. “You can cajole them and help them in so many different ways,” she said.

Making a difference is what Ross likes most about her role. “I love that lightbulb moment when you can see a child you’re trying to assist finally get something – the joy on their face when they get it is just unbelievable.”

Ross loves working with students in tech classes, PE and maths. “I particularly enjoy the practical subjects because you see kids who are not especially academic, they get into a non-academic subject like tech or PE and they just thrive – you can see they will have a career like a carpenter or a plumber because school’s just not for them,” she said.

“You just have to go with the flow. Those kids are very talented, but they don’t get recognised because their talent is not so academic. You have to give them that recognition because that’s their skill.”

Ross once supported a student who hated algebra. “So I made up a song and dance about how I loved algebra – ‘I love algebra, it’s so logical’, it went. Well I bumped into that student many years later at the local shops, and he started singing the song to me.” Ross was visibly moved by having made such a lasting impression.

While she has worked with thousands of students over the years, Ross still loves establishing a personal connection with each. “I see ex-students around all the time, and they always want to chat, which is a lovely feeling,” she said.

“I love that lightbulb moment when you can see a child you’re trying to assist finally get something – the joy on their face is unbelievable.”

Taking the rep’s baton

Like many members, Ross joined the IEU when a colleague invited her to, then she followed in that colleague’s footsteps to become the rep at St Leo’s. “A very good friend who was a librarian convinced me of the benefits of being a union member,” she said. “And then when she left, she handed me her little red folder and I’ve been the union rep since.”

The benefits of union membership are “absolutely brilliant”, Ross said. “If you’ve got any questions, union support is just a phone call or email away. Knowing you have that support when work can be a bit difficult. And knowing that you have rights and someone backing you. It really changes things,” she said.

As the rep at her school, Ross has a direct approach with non-members. “Probably in the last few years I’ve been a little bit firmer,” she said, noting that she reminds male teachers who take paid parental leave that “the union fought for it”.

Proud union gains

Ross is proud of the pay rises the union and its members achieved during the 2022-23 Hear Our Voice campaign. “The teacher’s aides have just had a massive pay rise to be on par with government schools,” she says. “Without the union, it wouldn’t have happened.”

She remembers the power of thousands of members taking collective action not just in rallies in Sydney but throughout NSW. “One of my colleagues and I, we were there at Sydney Town Hall in our gold t-shirts and chanting – it was electrifying,” she said.

“There are definite benefits of being a union member,” she said. “You meet other people and you can speak to them on a different level that doesn’t actually involve schoolwork. Just having that conversation with people makes a difference.”

Monica Crouch