“The Sikh values of hard and honest work, selfless service to others influenced my pathway in life. I would always lend a helping hand to my peers and younger ones with schoolwork. Teaching also inspired me because I was taught by master teachers who were excellent role models for me. Their commitment, dedication, and kindheartedness attracted me to the profession.”- Gurpreet Bains, Teacher, at LA Matheson Secondary School.
Teaching is the profession that teaches all other professions. As one of the most influential jobs in the world, not many professions touch as many people as teachers do. Shaping the future of our global ecosystem, teachers carry the important, shared responsibility of educating children and young adults. Fulfilling that responsibility, and beyond, with the utmost excellence and brilliance, is award-winning educator, mentorship facilitator, and community builder, Gurpreet Kaur Bains, who has been devotedly working in the field of education and community service for the past 23 years.
As the Modern Languages Department Head at Surrey’s LA Matheson Secondary School (LAM), she has actively collaborated with the Ministry of Education and the Museum of Surrey in developing South Asian curriculum and teaching resources. An Options Community Services’ 2022 Women of Options Gamechanger, she contributes and supports community programs and advocates for more youth resources. She has organized the annual Women Helping Women Fundraising Campaign to help women in transition homes since 2010. This year, Gurpreet was awarded the Surrey Now Community Leader Award, titled “Teacher of the Year”, for teaching excellence and community engagement.
Previously, she has also been recognized by the City of Surrey with the Mayor’s Award for fostering civic responsibility and cultivating social justice and empowerment in Surrey’s youth in 2018. Shakti Society of BC has also honored her with a Teaching Excellence Award in 2016. What’s more is that Bains is a part of a core team selected by BCTF as a resource writer with Saffron Threads, a culmination of educational resources exploring South Asian Canadian culture, history, and heritage in the province.
Bains’ passion for teaching was embedded in her from a young age. Born and brought up in Punjab, she grew up in Amritsar, Punjab and migrated to Canada in the 1990’s. The accomplished academic has earned a Master’s in Zoology (I), Bachelor’s in Education, and a Special Education Diploma from Simon Fraser University. Well versed with the two different education systems of India and British Columbia (BC), she has lived the experiences of attending one as a student and is currently teaching in the other.
The caring educator grew up with a passion for learning and making a difference in the community. “The Sikh values of hard and honest work, selfless service to others influenced my pathway in life. I would always lend a helping hand to my peers and younger ones with schoolwork. Teaching also inspired me because I was taught by master teachers who were excellent role models for me. Their commitment, dedication, and kindheartedness attracted me to the profession.”, shares Bains.
The impact of a teacher is lifelong, which Bains saw from day one. Education was always valued in her family and her father was the first person in his village to hold a master's degree back in the 1970s; he later passed the Punjab Civil Services Exam (PCS) and retired as Assistant Excise and Taxation Commissioner with the Punjab government. Bains saw first-hand how the three-tiered education system in India reinforced social class and status, and elevated special privilege. Interestingly, her journey to Canada provided her the very opportunity to stand up for social justice causes and be a voice for all. Her loving family supported her desire to continue to grow and excel in her chosen field of education in Canada.
Married into a settler Punjabi pioneer family whose first ancestor came to Canada in 1906, Bains worked hard on bringing the hidden stories of Punjabi settlers to light in her classroom. Resources like 100 Year Journey by Rana and Rupa Vig, Untold Stories: The South Asian Pioneer experience in BC by Karen Dosanjh, and Duty, Honour & Izzat: From Golden Fields to Crimson - Punjab's Brothers in Arms in Flanders by Steven Purewal are a few valuable resources that helped her achieve her goals.
Gurpreet’s maternal grandfather also served in WWII and was a prisoner of war. Both her maternal and paternal families went through the Partition of India in 1947 as well. The Punjabi program at LAM created an opportunity to bring these stories of identity and history to the entire school population and mentorship program together, as students and teachers worked to re-create a more inclusive, less Eurocentric commemoration of Remembrance Day that reflected students’ and staffs’ personal stories and histories.
Over time, Bains’ love for teaching and learning has only grown. She credits her students, who motivate her to be a better teacher everyday. Bains elaborates, “There is always room for growth. Meeting new students and making a difference in their lives is what drives me to do my best. When students come back after graduation and share how my classes have made an impact, it keeps me driven and focused. Teaching is all about relationships. The most rewarding aspect of my job is to see students being successful and realizing their potential to be of service to others as they become contributing members of their communities.”
Today, while there are many projects that Bains can be proud of, the most memorable one for her is the Next 100 Years Mentorship Through Identity Program that she helps facilitate at local elementary schools in collaboration with Safe Schools. LAM students from Grade 10-12 help deliver workshops on various themes in elementary schools and help with the transition to high school. Jaclyn Blaney, Assistant Manager Safe Schools, Surrey School District, remarks, “Through the Next 100 Years program, Gurpreet’s ability to connect with students, some prior to them even entering the secondary school system, as well as schools and the greater community, supports in the sustainment of safe and caring school environments. She is open and supportive while putting out a strong call to action to honor themselves, their family and community in the next 100 years. Her care and dedication has inspired many and will continue to be seen in the legacy of her work.”
Another notable project of Bains is her involvement in establishing a province-wide youth creative writing literary award for the Punjabi language, in collaboration with the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature; winning student stories are published as anthologies and create literature for children by children. In addition, she is the teacher sponsor for a four-year fundraiser to support the creation of a long-term care facility for South Asian seniors, Guru Nanak Diversity Village, by the Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS); Bains and team has raised $11,271 so far, and counting.
Bains has further collaborated with Mustang Justice, the Kaur Collective, Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival, Shakti Society, Surrey School District Film and Speech festival, and the Indus Media Foundation. Recently, Bains represented the Surrey School District in California at Sikhlens: Sikh Arts & Film Festival 2022, where she helped launch the preview of Hidden Histories: Settler Pioneer Sikhs in Canada, a documentary co-produced by local historian and author, Karen Dosanjh, in collaboration with Chapman University and Sikhlens. The inspiring speaker expressed, as part of the Creative Sikhs Panel, the importance of diverse stories in our classroom and their power in mentoring our youth. Bains and two of her students are featured in the documentary, putting forth the stories of Punjabi settler pioneers in BC.
Bains and her students’ many classroom and community projects tie in to the LAM’s Punjabi Mustang program, which instills a sense of identity in students, igniting the spark to take ownership of language and connect to their roots. According to Bains, if students do not see themselves in textbooks and the schooling system overall, then their sense of belonging diminishes. As such, programs like these are much-needed propellants of multiculturalism.
Of course, the Punjabi Mustang program took proactive leadership and solid championing to implement. Despite being trained as a science teacher, when the opportunity to teach Punjabi classes at LAM came up, Bains happily embraced the opportunity. That said, she noticed that there was not enough funding and resources. It was a real struggle to get her hands on meaningful resources and have the funding to buy them. However, with time, the Surrey School District rose with support and the program grew. The Punjabi Language Education Association (PLEA) has also collaborated and connected educators.
Surely, the support of the school has, above all, been instrumental. The program at LAM became so successful that in 2019, Gurpreet was chosen to be the Keynote Speaker at the BC Association of Teachers of Modern Languages Conference in Saanich, BC. She shared valuable resources, strategies, and mentorship with colleagues from all over the province using the Cultural Iceberg Model, a concept coined in 1976 by Edward T. Hall, who suggested that culture is analogous to an iceberg in that only about 10% of the iceberg is visible at any given time and that a large part of it is hidden beneath the surface. Bains has also served as the School Associate for SFU’s Teacher Education Program in the past and helped train some amazing educators who are now teaching in Surrey Schools.
Sunny Deol, the Principal of LAM, highlights, “Since my arrival at LAM as Principal, I have been constantly amazed by Preet's passion around teaching our students. She is the epitome of a teacher that understands that teaching extends beyond the classroom. She not only teaches academic skills including Punjabi, Learning Support and Science in the classroom, but she teaches students the importance of being a good citizen.”
Shining light on the importance of teachers to be actively involved in the wider community, Bains reminds that it truly does take a village to teach a child. Since teaching does not take place in a vacuum, the community is a huge resource. Academic excellence is also only meaningful when students are also community contributors. The community activist strongly believes that collaboration between educators and community stakeholders is vital in uplifting communities.
Moreover, a parent whose children have been through the public education system, Bains reveals that she has gotten the unique experience of accessing behind-the-scenes information which may not be visible otherwise. For example, teacher shortages, funding cuts, and the need for diversity and inclusion in the classrooms can be hard to understand, alongside how important parent involvement is for the success of children. Therefore, Bains often conducts workshops and holds talk shows that encourage more parental involvement in schools.
“Parents who know better, always do better. Language barriers and hesitation can be huge factors, too, and with changing dynamics, parents also need resources to be able to support their children in public schools. We can always start with awareness and creating welcoming environments, where parents feel comfortable.”, suggests Bains.
For incoming teachers, Bains’ advice is simple, yet powerful. She urges teachers to make authentic relationships in classrooms, where students belong and are comfortable being themselves. A belief of Bains is that students must be connected to their communities for real-life experiences. This not only helps students realize their true potential, but also prepares them for life, not just high school or postsecondary institutions. Opportunities must be created for all students to feel successful and focus on the values of kindness and compassion - not just GPAs.
Baldeep Kaur Sahota, a LAM Grad 2023 says, “Mrs. Bains is an incredible teacher who takes her time to make sure her students are mentally and physically healthy. She takes the time to check in with everyone and is very flexible in meeting the needs of all students. Her door is always open if anyone needs help or guidance. She always comes in with positive energy and lifts everyone up.”
Undoubtedly, the genuine motivation that Bains has, to make the education system and the community a better place, only multiplies and amplifies through her students. A catalyst for change, she is successfully fueling important conversations in the public sphere that are producing evident, noteworthy results. Not only an exemplary teacher, Bains is a standing testament to how educators can shine as exceptional members of local and global communities.