An Interview with Shyama Sunderaswara


I’ve never actually met Shyama face to face although we have considerable interaction on Twitter when she tags me in messages.  She does claim to have a passion for teaching and it comes through loudly and clearly as she shares her philosophy, opinions, and pictures of learning in action from her school regularly on Social Media.

I invited her to be interviewed and, voila, here she is.

Doug:  So, my first question is always the same – how did you ever find me and decide that our paths needed to cross?

Shyama: @WillGourley was my “Host Teacher” during my practicum at Niagara University. I had seen his “Retweets” of your weekly “#FollowFriday – Active Ontario Educators” in which his name had been mentioned many times. From that, I started following your tweets and blogs.  Also when I tweet I tag people whom I think are relevant to that tweet. So I started tagging you whenever I tweeted anything related to education. The first time when I saw my Twitter handle (@ssunderaswara) tagged in the same “#FollowFriday – Active Ontario Educators”, I literally freaked out! I have made many entries on the same list since then, but it still gives me a big sugar rush, every Friday when my name makes “the cut”!  😊

Doug:  You were paired with one of the best, that’s for sure.  I find it interesting when I’m tagged and debate whether it’s an FYI or if you are looking for a response!  As for Fridays, it’s just my attempt to try to make connections.

You have a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree from Pondicherry University.  I’d never heard of this university so it took me down a bit of a rabbit hole exploring its website.  It was easy as it presents in English and I was impressed with the large number of study offerings for students.  Can you tell us what was the appeal of Pondicherry for you and a bit about the campus?

Shyama: It brought a smile to my face to know that you did some digging about my academic background. Pondicherry itself is a very small coastal city that a lot of people in Canada are not familiar with. Believe it or not, when India was “ruled” by British people, Pondicherry was a French colony and to date, one can see a lot of French influence in Pondicherry. 

If you ever visit India, keep Pondicherry on your itinerary. Or if you are an armchair traveler, then check out these 2 videos: The first one (25 minutes) gives you a good historic overview of Pondicherry and the second one (5 minutes) is a bird’s eye view.  Pondicherry is a very unique eclectic destination that is very different from the rest of India.

I was born in Pondicherry and did all my schooling, college, and university there. So it is not like I chose it out of many options that were available.  Also in those years, my parents would not allow me to go “out of state” to pursue my higher studies. It was just a default option for me.    

Doug:  I confess that I did not know of Pondicherry until we did this interview.  I was more of a Mumbai, New Delhi type of person when I think of India. Already, you’ve made me smarter. I enjoyed the videos and I love the idea of closing the promenade in the evening. Our town did that last summer and it transformed it. It was so popular that they’re going to do it again this summer.

The past couple of years hasn’t been kind to anyone.  How has COVID affected your personal and professional life?

Shyama: I don’t want to offend anybody since I know many people around the world were negatively affected by COVID. At the same time, I have to portray a different side of the story because it is MY story and it is true. 

I went through a very dark phase in the first 10+ years of my project management career in GTA. I was very innocent and did not know how to swim with the sharks. I was academically and technically qualified but did a very poor job in playing corporate politics. Discriminatory treatments, Unfair business practices, and profit (not consumer) driven products/services all started having a toll on my mental health. I still carry a lot of trauma from those years and am trying my best to heal. 

Changing careers to become a teacher is the second-best thing that ever happened to me (the first one, being a mother). Thank God for that. Yes, there have been a lot of changes in the education space during covid times… but as far as my personal and professional lives are concerned I am having the best of both worlds for the past 4 years, (covid or no covid) and I am grateful about it almost every day. My students, my friends, and family see me being happy and positive (irrespective of all the external turbulence) and it is contagious.  Having gone through a lot of bad times in my personal and professional life, especially in Canada, I am finally in a better spot and I am cherishing every moment of it. At the same time, all those experiences have shaped me to become a mature, open-minded, humble, flexible, empathetic person with a lot of clarity and purpose. In retrospect, I am grateful for those hardships and lessons learned. 

Doug:  I don’t think you have to worry about offending anyone.  I appreciate the fact that you were so honest about it.  I’ve never been in that position so can only nod my head sadly.  I’m delighted to see that you landed in education and you’re so positive about it.

Now that students and staff are back in school, how has the regular routine changed?  

Shyama: The major change/challenges during covid used to be huge uncertainties around communication from various directions last-minute pivoting,  and social distancing protocols. But now that things are almost trying to get back to the “pre-covid” times, it looks like we are getting back to some type of normalcy. 

If there was one thing I hated during Covid times, it was the mask. Not being able to smile at my students and not being able to see their smiles or facial expressions was a big “turn off” for me. I am a French language/Music/Drama teacher. Mask was a big punishment on a daily basis. I know it is still a controversial topic. So please note that this is just my personal view. We are not discussing what is right or wrong. I am not disputing or devaluing the rationality of masks, but just saying that it was really hard to go through that phase.

Doug:  I’ve actually talked to some elementary school students who hate the mask as well.  As only a child can, the comment “I think they hate me” comes through because it’s tough to read facial emotions.  

Using your crystal ball, will it be better in the fall?

Shyama: I am an optimist. I hope and pray that things get a lot better for everyone around the world!

Doug:  You’re relatively new to the teaching profession.  What lured you to the classroom?  Any regrets?

Shyama: As a licensed teacher, I am comparatively new to this profession in Ontario. I was a lecturer in a community college (affiliated with Pondicherry University) when I was 24 years old. My mother is a retired teacher and my dad was an extension educator in the health department in Pondicherry. Many of my uncles, aunts, cousins, and sisters are teachers, college professors, and lecturers in India and internationally. So it is not an exaggeration if I say “it runs in our family”. I have been tutoring French and English for the past 10+ years and most of my students are through parents’ word of mouth referrals. My daughter was born in Canada and did all her schooling here. I was a very involved parent who never missed a parents council meeting or volunteering opportunity at school. Education has always been part of me, it is just that I never took it seriously and was chasing a career in Project Management. My biggest regret is not choosing this path as my career when I came to Canada in 1998. My whole story would have been entirely different. 

I must add something interesting here. They always say the first three years are the hardest for a new teacher. This is the timeline of my first 4 years. (2022~2023 will be my 5th year with PDSB)

  • 1st year: Planning time teacher @ Ingleborough PS, Brampton. I went to 28 different classrooms in a 10 Day Cycle (teaching Core French, Drama, and Dance from KG to Grade 8). That year I had to write more than 500 report cards each term! I did not have my own classroom or a workstation to work on a daily basis. Trust me, my PMP background really helped me to survive that year.
  • 2nd year: Planning time teacher @ Silver Creek  (A school with 4 pods and no walls between classes). I did not have my own classroom or a workstation to work on a daily basis. This was the year we had Union Strike/Job action-related changes that impacted many of our regular school activities. We were walking on the streets with placards in our hands during the peak of the winter. I was thinking what did I get myself into! 😄 😆 😋
  • 3rd & 4th year: Covid. “Online”/”Back in school” chaos.  Still a planning time teacher with no own classroom. 

I have heard from many experienced veteran teachers that the last few years were the toughest for them in their careers and those were just my first few! You can imagine how it must have been. 

Irrespective of that I completed 2 FSL AQs, attended many PDs, and workshops, was active in PETL committees, did multiple events with my students, hosted a student-teacher from OISE, upgraded my skills, and still continue to be the best version of myself on a daily basis.  I am loving it. 

When I am in the classroom, It does not matter what I teach, I forget everything. I belong there and I know my kids love me. I don’t teach nor do my students learn. I inspire them and my students get passionate about the subjects. I am a gardener. I plant seeds, water them and nurture them. Students bloom. 

Not everyone who reads this is going to believe all this I have said. Also, as a planning time teacher, neither my admin nor my peers take me or my subjects seriously, but that is OK too. I am not doing anything to impress anyone or to get recognition. (But that might help too)  😋 😃 😆

Doug:  So, if those three years are the hardest, it should be smooth sailing from now on!

Where do you see yourself headed in education?  You work for a big district in Peel – are they appealing options for movement for you?

Shyama: I have been thinking a lot about it lately and I still don’t have a clear vision yet. I don’t want to think along the lines of “career” or “promotion” or things like that… Those types of titles and fancy words don’t appeal to me anymore. 

I feel very strongly that I have a lot of potential and have a lot to offer. Oftentimes I feel stifled and feel like a BIG FISH in a small pond. I want to evolve as a leader, a change-maker in education – globally. Sometimes my head is so full of ideas, thoughts bursting to explode and I just don’t know how to channel them. I am desperate for a mentor but don’t know how/where to find one. There is an old saying: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear”. I am waiting for my teacher! My expectations are very high, for myself and for others. 

I signed a contract with PDSB for being in the “French pool” for 5 years. That contract is ending next year. I have lived in Ontario for about 25 years. Had enough shares of winters too. Next Spring, I will start looking for international opportunities. I want to give back. I am a strong advocate of mental health, promoting children as well-rounded individuals with life skills, rather than academic/materialistic robots. I love the story of aboriginal people, and their history and feel very strongly about how we have been very unfair to them. You will be surprised to know how similar Native American / Indigenous peoples’ cultures/belief systems, practices, lifestyles, and of Indians from India are.  What we did to indigenous people, we are doing that to many countries in the world today. Uprooting cultures, habits, languages, and practices in the name of “globalization”. That is a separate topic for another day. I am digressing. 

My daily mantras are “One day at a time”, and “Que Sera, Sera”. I also have a lot of interest in Spirituality (Especially the topic of “Death” – a taboo topic in the modern world). So it may even happen that one day I decide to call it all quits, and simply retire! 

The best thing is, my canvas is blank and I am thrilled and ready with more clarity than ever to start painting!

Doug:  From your Twitter timeline, I’m going to quote you in your reference to Pav Wander and Chey Cheney’s book.

“Since I came to Canada, I always felt (still continue to feel to some extent) exactly how the 2 main characters of this story feel: Unheard! “

One of the things that you wanted to talk about was how “brown” is the new black.  That has a strong message in the United States but a different message here in Canada.  Can you elaborate from your perspective?  Why is this important?

You have the floor here – what do you want the world to hear from you?

Shyama: I don’t really know the reference to “brown is the new black” in the USA. When I googled that after reading your question, I only came across a title of sci-fi fiction. My understanding of this expression comes with a question. Now that we are taking care of the sentiments and rights of many groups that feel being treated poorly historically (black, indigenous, LGBTQ, Muslims, etc.) – Is it the turn for brown people yet? Because our experiences are quite similar.

As I said earlier, I have lived in Canada for more than 25 years with active involvement in lots of personal, social, and professional networks (Toastmasters, PMI chapters, Tamil associations, etc.) and this is a strong feeling that the majority of people from India feel. Especially the Indian women. I am not talking about the very few individuals who have made it big or become successful in any given field. I am referring to the massive number of Indian women whose voices are never heard in staff meetings, whose ideas are never appreciated publicly, and those who just hide or do not use their actual talent or potential because they were never given that opportunity or already know that it is going to be of no use. I don’t remember if it was @PavWander in one of her podcasts or somebody else who once said, “I would give ideas, solutions – but the entire room would go silent or move on – as if I never spoke/existed”. It has happened to me many times in Canada. Guess what, I have stopped sharing my ideas/solutions. 

Indian women are smart (mostly educated), creative, reliable, sincere, hard-working, and also by nature humble and passive. We don’t wear high heels (because we are practical and do not want to end up with back problems in the long run) nor mini-skirts “to appear professional”. It is very cultural. The irony is women in India these days are much more aggressive, and assertive and are breaking traditional barriers in many different ways. But when it comes to the older generation (like me) who have been living in Canada for decades, our stories are the same. We are discriminated against and have never been treated the same way. In my past interactions with ETFO and ACENET I know it is just not Indian women, all minorities feel exactly the same way. In your personal or professional life, if you feel you are a misfit – and live your daily lives feeling excluded, disrespected, not valued, or appreciated – it will affect your mental health. Why is mental health such a huge problem in today’s world? Think about it!

Yes, for the past few years a lot is changing due to all kinds of social changes happening around the world. Lots of buzz words like inclusiveness, anti-racism, etc..etc… The theory, awareness, and noise are everywhere but in reality, not a lot has changed. Media, News channels, politicians – they all play us. I can give you specific examples of things that need a big shake-up. But I am sure I will not be the first person to list them. In Canada, you have to sugarcoat everything. It is all about numbers, the majority, and the number of votes. 

That is why personally whenever I hear expressions that divide people my only response/slogan is “All lives matter” – Does not matter if you are black, white, brown, green, or blue, irrespective of religious background, gender identity, etc. Identities are important. But they are not the only things. A true leader of any country must unite everyone, not divide them based on their identity. I am not sure if I am communicating my thoughts clearly or not. I am a puritan in heart and anything that is not fair – bothers me a great deal! 

I hope OCT does not come after me for saying all this.

Doug:  In case you didn’t mention it above, I’ll have a separate question here – you have definite opinions about “planning time teachers”.  What are your concerns?  How would you fix it?

Shyama: I don’t even know how to start answering this question. It is a big topic. I have enough material to write a stand-up comedy on this topic. Thank God you did not give me a “word limit” for my answers. I will really try my best to keep it brief.  😆

Most of the planning time teachers teach “à la carte”. In other words, we do not have any designated classrooms and have to teach from class to class. Teaching in another teacher’s classroom is not conducive to effective pedagogy.  

The following are some of the struggles that Planning Time Teachers (PTT) go through on a daily basis go to many different classrooms to cover other teachers’ planning time:

  1. If a PTT teaches dance or drama in a regular “homeroom”, it is very impractical to move the desks and chairs to create a space to move around every single time for a 40 minute period
  2. Every homeroom teacher has his/her own computer that they want to use during their planning time since all their resources are housed in “that computer” in their own folders etc (and not centrally so that they can access them from anywhere). So most of the time they want to use their computers which restricts the use of technology for the PTT. As you know, there is usually one teacher’s computer that is connected to a projector et al per classroom. 
  3. I am not going to include the minor convenience of logging in/logging out, and security/privacy-related issues here. (Case in point: a lot of homeroom teachers usually don’t even log off when they leave their classes – which is a security risk, but PTTs are nice people, so we usually cause no harm)
  4. Core French teachers would love to have our own rooms with beautiful visuals, provocations, mini library corner, word wall lists, students’ work displays, etc. to give that “Ambiance Française” every time the students come for their French classes, rather than looking like a “Homeless Hobo” wheeling around a candy cart!
  5. Mandated to follow the homeroom teachers’ routines, rules, seating plan, etc.
  6. There is also a lack of respect for PTTs in many different ways: 
    • No place to put our own resources anywhere in the classes we go to 
    • Coats, Jackets, overflowing personal stuff on homeroom teachers’ desks, chairs, etc. that will prevent PTTs from having thier own teaching space in those workstations!
    • Homeroom teachers walk in and out of the class randomly while the PTTs are teaching
    • Homeroom teachers walk in and talk to students (without seeking permission, even as a courtesy) randomly – while the PTTs and the students are 100% engaged in teaching a lesson
    • Homeroom teacher working in the same classroom while the PTT is teaching – homeroom teacher’s buddy walks in and they start having a “party” filled with loud giggles and gossip – completely discarding the fact that there is another teacher (as qualified as they are) trying to teach a lesson
    • PTTs are referred to as “Floaters” by homeroom teachers

One of the reasons PTTs have put up with this type of treatment (and no one has ever done anything about it) is because 99% of PTTs are brand new teachers. They are still learning their ropes and do not want to rock the boat or create conflicts with their peers or admin. Also, they know that there are other bigger challenges/problems that exist in our education system (that this particular issue is like “collateral damage”) that they simply put up with!

If I get a proper workstation next year @ Silver Creek, I will consider myself to be very lucky! 😊

Doug:  You’re right; there is no word limit as it’s important to share your message.

I like the other suggestion that you wanted to talk about “an annual gala celebration idea to bring all the best educators of Ontario irrespective caste, color, or creed – totally unrelated to boards or unions or political flavors!”  

What do you have in mind?  How would it play out?  Who would take the lead on it?

Shyama: As a first step, if we can bring together some like-minded individuals and brainstorm some ideas, I am sure we can come up with a fantastic event that will truly celebrate education/educators. It is not about promoting one’s “personal agenda” but collaborating that would result in an achievement that is larger than life. 

Few ideas: 

  • Panel discussions to point out the things that need to be “fixed” in our education system (provincially / federally)
  • Recommendations to eliminate outdated practices and policies
  • A “to-do list” to the Education Minister
  • Revisions to existing curricula to make them meaningful, relevant, and contemporary
  • Shake-up OCT to be more “educators-friendly” than alienating itself from the grassroots voices
  • Role of Admin in schools 
  • Burnt out/rusty/bitter (but well-paid) teachers and the unspoken problems they pose

Doug:  As we do this interview, the school year is winding down.  For most teachers, this will indeed be a summer like no other where recharging and taking care of oneself becomes so important.  Can you share your plans?

Shyama: I am leaving for India on Jul 3rd, and returning on Aug 15th. It is a trip that got delayed for the last 2 years so I am really looking forward to it. 😊

Doug:  Now that’s quite a trip.  I hope that you have your chance to recharge abroad and that it’s as exciting as doing the EdgeWalk.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.  I know that times are incredibly busy and time is at a real premium.

Shyama: Doug, you have no idea how appreciative I am of this opportunity. Whatever I shared with you today, the intention was not to make myself look superior, boastful, or overconfident nor to offend anyone. I truly wanted to share my personal views and be honest/genuine about it. I don’t want to live the rest of my life in fear. I sincerely hope those who read this interview take me for who I am and do not judge me or try to put me in a box! Thanks once again. I look forward to our next interaction. 💝

You can connect with Shyama on Twitter at:  @ssunderaswara

Periodically, I interview interesting people like Shyama.  You can check them all out on the Interview Page at https://dougpete.wordpress.com/interviews/

OTR Links 05/16/2022


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