This powerhouse of a woman wears many hats: daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend, and now, the first South Asian / Punjabi President of the Surrey Teachers’ Association. After volunteering for many years with the Surrey Teachers’ Association, Jatinder Bir was nudged to put her name forward to run for election as Vice President in 2018.
This year, she has been elected as President by her peers. Over the span of her career, Bir has worked alongside amazing professionals both past and present who are dedicated to learning and growing as teachers and simultaneously tackling challenges with grace and style. She takes great pride in establishing deep connections through service, integrity, passion, perseverance, and equanimity.
A graduate of the University of British Columbia Education program (post-baccalaureate), Bir also attended Simon Fraser University, where she majored in History and minored in Gerontology for her undergraduate studies, and further obtained her Master of Education in Inclusive Education. A passionate special educator and history teacher, she has been a mentor for the Simon Fraser University Graduate Program and a BC Teachers' Federation member. Additionally, Bir is the first representative of South Asian / Punjabi descent to be elected to the BC Teachers' Council.
When it comes to her problem-solving skills, Bir has always been someone who approaches matters from both an individual and systemic perspective. As a woman of color, a classroom teacher, and a committed community and teacher activist, she sees the essential requirement to understand and respond to both teachers’ needs and the overarching structures in which they work.
Bir’s firm belief is that teachers are a unique bunch and don’t just stop at “no”; they are willing to do anything for their students. She loves being part of a thoughtful group of professionals that truly loves teaching students in a way that is meaningful to each and every one of them. Coming across students of all ranges and abilities has instilled in Bir patience, compassion, and understanding. As well, working with children with special needs has allowed her to become more adept in her practice. Undoubtedly, these skills have also enabled her to become an effective leader.
For Bir, it is truly an honor and privilege to serve her profession, Surrey’s teachers, and public education through her presidency. However, as a female person of color in the education system, she has dealt with her fair share of hardships. Bir elaborates, “I was underrepresented and unsupported. I faced many challenges including a lack of opportunities and support for growth in leadership. They did not see me – I was simply not good enough. Perhaps, I didn’t have the image, perhaps I lacked experience. Well, that’s what they always say, right? Work harder!”
In addition to professional hurdles, Bir has also had to navigate through adversity in her personal life. In 2008, in a hit-and-run incident, Bir’s parents were both killed when a vehicle struck the back of their car, in which the parents, Dilbag and Bakhshish Badh, and Bir’s sisters, Rupi and Varinder, were returning from Rupi’s engagement party. Having to go through the ordeal of court cases in combination with grieving the loss of her parents, Bir has really had to show extraordinary strength through great suffering.
The loving daughter credits everything she is to her parents and looks at her Surrey Teachers’ Association presidency as seva (selfless service). “I want to honor my parents every chance I get.”, says Bir.
Reflecting on the many struggles she has coped with, Bir sums it up with a quote by Booker T. Washington, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome while trying to succeed.” Evidently, for Bir, leadership is not about tenure or title. Rather, it is about helping people achieve their full potential and putting association in a position to succeed.
Moreover, Bir’s definition of leadership entails humility, service, sacrifice, and making an impact on others. Her style is all about having a compelling vision of the future and connecting others to it.
In line with her values, Bir is actively advocating for teachers in Surrey through her current presidency with the Surrey Teachers’ Association. She considers herself fortunate enough to be working alongside colleagues who continue to inspire her everyday by working relentlessly and refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.
The fearless champion firmly believes that all members of Surrey teachers’ union-movement together ought to help one another in their collective struggles for fair wages, safe workplaces, better benefits, and human rights.
Bir’s goals with her professional leadership also trace back to her own experiences as a child. Growing up, she often found herself stuck between two worlds and two cultures, especially at school. Though she was integrated into Canadian culture, she knew in her heart that she was different and always attempted to fit in with the kids around her.
As such, her priorities also include a commitment to inclusive practices which encourage diversity in leadership because she, too, is a proud Punjabi woman, and knows firsthand the value and importance in perspectives, ideas, and experiences that diversity provides.
In light of Bir’s accomplishments and plans, she emphasizes that there is no single strategy for success. She aims for positivity, is flexible, keeps refining her practice, and continues to learn with the desire to keep improving. What’s more is that she makes it a point to be relational and surround herself with allys, and true, loyal friends and colleagues. The go-getter strives to find opportunities and seize them, bringing others along.
Of course, Bir also highlights the importance of knowing one’s rights as an employee – when you know better, you do better. Above all, the boss lady ensures to never forget that empathy will always help along the way. Bir brings attention to her mantra, “I work hard, I focus on relationships AND I finally realized that I am indeed ‘enough’. That’s how I thrive today!”
Aside from her presidency and community work, Bir is a proud mother of two awesome adult children, Gursimran (Simran) and Rajan Bir. She explains, “As parents, we are in the business of putting ourselves out of a job when our kids grow up, so now I try to nurture my own dreams while continuing to cultivate a close friendship with them. I love this saying, ‘I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living, My baby you'll be.’ – still my truth!”
Surely, as Bir juggles and hustles through the multifaceted involvements of her professional life and beyond, her story serves as a testament to overcoming adversity and emerging victorious as a leader who propels positivity. Educator or not, Bir is a role-model to every member of our community, an exemplary global citizen, and source of pride for our community. Her journey renews the gratitude and appreciation we must have for our teachers, who work with tireless dedication to shape our future. Carrying the torch of the Surrey Teachers’ Association forward with the spark of lifelong learning, Bir is a true changemaker destined to soar to new heights.