On the Job with… Palwinder Kaur, Teacher
It’s bright and early on Saturday, and Teacher Palwinder Kaur is making her way through the quiet hallways at Walter Gretzky Elementary School, with lesson plans and supporting materials in hand. No, she didn’t get the days mixed up; soon, the Punjabi language class she teaches through Grand Erie Learning Alternatives (GELA) will be in session. As students arrive, class begins with O’ Canada, followed by Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem of India. A few students sing the words to both anthems.
“During the week, I teach Kindergarten at Waterford Public School, and on Saturdays, I share my love of this language with secondary school students,” says Kaur of the credit-course which covers reading, writing, and speaking skills, and provides cultural enrichment as well. “Teaching is my dream job, and to be able to give back to my community through a class like this is very special.”
Students range from Grades 9 to 12, and can earn a language credit through completion of the Saturday-morning course, which runs from September to June. With Diwali beginning the following day, there’s lots to discuss – both in English and Punjabi. Kaur reviews a writing assignment from the previous week, and students work to correct spelling mistakes or inconsistencies in sentence structure. Depending on the speaker of the sentence, and to whom they are referring, sentences are adjusted accordingly on the white board.
Kaur came to Canada in 2010 as a skilled worker with her husband and young son. She’d been teaching post-secondary level courses in Firozpur, a city in Punjab province in India, after completing her master of philosophy degree in mathematics. The young family was living in Burlington, but they didn’t have any extended family here or a support system in place, and with the birth of Kaur’s daughter, teaching college-level courses wasn’t going to work for their schedules. So she and her husband got jobs that did work, with her husband working the day shift and Kaur the evening shift at Tim Hortons, so child-care duties could be met by each of them. Kaur also worked in a warehouse, but was feeling a strong pull back towards teaching.
“I went for my annual checkup at the doctors, and it wasn’t good – all of my levels were down, and I wasn’t feeling well at all,” recalls Kaur. “My doctor asked me, ‘what’s changed about your lifestyle?’ and I told her, ‘nothing, except that I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing.’”
That admission made things clear for Kaur: she quit her jobs, and began volunteering in schools as a lunchtime supervisor. She took a job with the YMCA’s before-and-after care program, and worked to get on supply lists by providing the Ontario College of Teachers with her transcripts for equivalency here to teach primary and junior curricula, which meant upgrading some of her qualifications due to the differences in grade divisions between each country. It took her a year to land on the supply list.
“It was a short-term sacrifice to reach a long-term goal,” says Kaur, whose family also made the move to Brantford around that time, and with the guidance and support of Administrator Clara Anderson, began volunteering in Grand Erie schools. “I was never completely happy working outside of the teaching profession, and that had caught up to me.”
Kaur uses video content in the Punjabi language class to enrich each week’s lessons, and today uses clips from a Punjabi-language comedy to provide students with further context for grammar and syntax. They also note the relationships and subtle exchanges that reveal the uniqueness of the subject they’re studying. Students watch attentively as the characters on screen navigate social situations, laughing at the same points as they grasp the humour of the scenes.
Translating language and imparting cultural understanding is something Kaur has gotten comfortable with doing over her teaching career in Canada, and loves reading primary students the classic It’s Okay to Be Different as a jumping-off point.
“I look different, I speak different, and since not every community has a wide diversity of cultures, I’ve been able to use my experience as an opportunity for discussion” says Kaur with a laugh as she recalls an early supply-teaching experience in which a Kindergarten student asked her innocently which planet she was from. “I explained, ‘I’m from the same planet as you, just a different country on the other side of it!’ Sharing my story about why I have an accent, for example, creates a relationship where I can be me, and they can be them; that creates acceptance, and that leads to success.”
A class discussion touches on plans for celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of light celebrated each autumn in the northern hemisphere. Kaur believes there’s an important purpose in recognizing the holidays and traditions significant to each of the members of the wider school community.
“Having your culture and traditions acknowledged leads to feeling seen and understood,” says Kaur, echoing Grand Erie’s Multi-Year Plan and its Equity and Well-Being pillars, which work to create environments that are inclusive and welcoming to all. “To see yourself reflected in the school community through the sharing of our cultures creates that belonging.”
Class ends with an energetic counting game that gets students out of their seats, and an assignment to use their newly acquired vocabulary to construct family trees. As class dismisses, Kaur meets her husband, also a teacher, who has been teaching the Punjabi language class for students in Grades 6 to 8 that morning. With two young kids, the rest of the weekend will be filled with swimming lessons, cooking at home, and Diwali celebrations with friends.
“This is the community that gave us our dream jobs,” Kaur says. “We’re happy to be building our lives here.”