Shaping Communities for Positive Change: An Educator’s Perspective

February 15, 2024

Every year, Surrey Now-Leader honours what it calls the city’s “unsung heroes,” individuals who do not seek recognition but continue giving back to the community. The 2023 Teacher of the Year award winner is Education alumnus Rick Kumar, who shared his journey, challenges, and aspirations in recent conversations with the Faculty of Education.   

“Care drives our work, but our feelings about an issue are what put gas in the car,” says Rick, who is an English First Peoples Teacher at Tweedsmuir Secondary, where he also sponsors the school’s Debate, Model United Nations, and Anime Clubs. 

“I want my students to flourish, and I promised myself I would do everything in my power to advocate for them. After all, why are we in education if not to guide them into the future,” he adds.

Connections begin with conversations – the listening and the care, which help students find what truly inspires them, and teachers have an opportunity to become both mentors and role models. Rick himself certainly walks the talk -- in addition to numerous school commitments, he also sits on the Executive of B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF), and helps in homeless shelters through Options Community Services.

“Like any good-hearted individual, I like sleep, but I love making a difference more,” he remarks. And for those who also want to enact positive change, Rick has some suggestions.

For Educators:

1. Community-Based Learning Projects:
Example: Collaborate with local organizations on projects like environmental initiatives, addressing community needs while providing students with practical experiences. A seed library in front of a school, or a school garden give purpose and an opportunity to learn to students.

2. Parent and Community Involvement:
Example: Organize regular meetings involving parents and community members to foster shared responsibility and understanding in shaping the educational experience.

3. Mentorship Programs:
Example: Establish mentorship programs connecting experienced educators with students, providing guidance for academic and personal development.

4. Advocacy for Resources:
Example: Advocate for increased funding in underserved areas, ensuring equitable access to quality education. Fundraising and other food drives, tech drives, and other ways of generating resources are great ways to support those who don’t have.

For Individuals Seeking Positive Impact:

1. Listen and Learn:
Example: Attend community forums, like town hall meetings, to understand unique needs and concerns. Build off what you hear and make the community a better place.

2. Collaborate with Local Businesses: 
Example: Partner with local businesses to create opportunities such as internships, fostering practical benefits and strengthening community ties.

3. Support Local Initiatives: 
Example: Volunteer for existing projects like food drives, ensuring seamless integration into ongoing community efforts.

4. Empower Youth Voices: 
Example: Establish platforms like youth councils to empower the next generation in shaping the community's future.

5. Environmental Stewardship: 
Example: Initiate local clean-up events or sustainable practices, enhancing the community aesthetically and promoting a sense of pride and responsibility.

As a racialized teacher, he firmly believes that students must see themselves reflected in their studies. Rick has leveraged his recent recognition as Teacher of the Year to advocate for policies that address systemic issues affecting certain student populations.  

“This honour inspires me to continue pushing for inclusivity, diversity, and equity within the education system, recognizing the profound impact representation can have on students from diverse backgrounds,” he says.

He describes his own education journey in the 2017 Professional Development Program and BEd as one of the toughest challenges he has ever faced, replete with systemic racism and painful isolation.  This was juxtaposed against an enriching experience he had as part of the International Teacher Education Module (ITEM) whilst teaching in India and immersing in Tibetan culture and community. Rick’s health suffered, and he even had to take a break from the program. 

“During the next iteration of my long practicum, I worked hard, gave up my relationships and friendships, and even with the death of a very close mentor of mine I still persevered,” Rick shares. “SFU’s programs taught me what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and who I didn’t want to be like,” he adds.

In what he describes as a “meta turn of events,” Rick had an opportunity to meet with Janice St. Helene, Director of Professional Programs in the Faculty of Education, and use what had been a deeply painful part of his life as an opportunity for advocacy.  

Rick and Janice discussed the obligation teacher preparation programs have to create safe and inclusive spaces and reviewed the specific commitments SFU Teacher Education has made and must continue to make to support the success and well-being of its diverse student population. This includes mandatory training for faculty associates and program coordinators in equity, diversity, and inclusion, regular program and curriculum reviews, as well as ensuring students are fully aware of resources to support their success and wellness during their journey to teaching.  “We share the same goal, to create a system that helps develop strong teachers,” he says, "ultimately to support the province’s students better."

Rick sees his recent award not only as an affirmation that the work he is doing is reflective of community needs but also as a recognition for other “unsung heroes.”

“This win isn’t for me, it’s a pat on the back and “a cozy sweater hug” for every Surrey teacher who has changed a student’s life for the better… and especially for those who will continue to do it even when their name doesn’t appear on an award. My deepest thank you, Surrey teachers,” he concludes.