How Toronto teacher Kulsoom Anwer is helping students navigate the school year

World Teachers' Day is October 5. In honour of the teachers navigating the back-to-school environment amidst the pandemic, the CBC Toronto Community team spoke to TDSB teacher Kulsoom Anwer about her career, inspiration and approach to supporting students in the current environment.

October 5 is World Teachers' Day

Teacher Kulsoom Anwer (Qismat Shaikh/CBC)

Education has always been understood as valuable, but the pandemic further highlighted the significant impact that teachers have on the daily lives and future prospects of the next generation. Not only do they create and support educational opportunities, their classrooms provide valuable opportunities for friendship, social and cultural learnings that extend beyond the curriculum. 

In honour of World Teacher's Day on October 5, we spoke with Toronto-based teacher Kulsoom Anwer about her love for the profession, how she inspires her students, and words of advice for students and educators in the current times.

Get to know Kulsoom below.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Kulsoom Anwer
North York, ON


What inspired you to become a teacher?

I had an early talent for explaining things to my classmates. In grade 1, I was the go-to if you wanted to know how to spell something. It felt like success. As the years of schooling went by, I basically got to job shadow every day. I thought it seemed fun — I wanted to make jokes, read and talk with young people for a living. Later, I began to understand that all neighbourhoods are not the same, all childhoods are not the same, and that the society we live in can work against us. Teaching became my way to work toward racial and economic justice—to decolonize minds, the way my own eventually was.

Is there a teacher who positively impacted your life as a student? 

Claude Grimmond was a teacher and titan who founded a program called Positive Peer Culture, which taught students conflict mediation skills. Every student at my high school took the introductory course in grade 9, and I took the senior level courses as well. Mr. Grimmond was one of the first people who made me think critically about race: the myth of color blindness, racism in policing, and that the most demonized students are often the most vulnerable. He and another mentor/teacher of mine, Teresa Smith, helped me apply to a competitive teacher education program. I teach at my former high school now and do my best to live up to their legacy.


What's one piece of advice you offer to your students?

I start every course by telling students that 'drop by drop, a river is formed'. It's something my mother used to tell me often. The message is that great things are possible with incremental effort, that what we do every day matters. At the same time, I want students to be aware of the systems that shape our individual experiences and choices. We must know the language to hold those systems accountable for their oppressions and transform them, for our own sakes, and for everyone's. 

How have you been adjusting to teaching in the midst of the pandemic?

I teach at the high school level where classes are mostly capped at 15 [students]. I have tremendous sympathy for elementary and middle school educators dealing with the challenges and risks that come with overcrowded classrooms. 

A lot of joy is absent with the loss of daily togetherness. Even when I do see my students for almost four-hour blocks, things are different: half of our faces are hidden and group work is impossible. I see students resigned to the loss of the things they loved, like sports and other extracurriculars. I see them hold out hope for the rituals of schooling they always expected—graduations, proms, dances. There is a lot of quiet, co-operative endurance. 

I am waiting to return fully to the job as I know it. Meanwhile, like all educators right now, I am engaged in using technology to produce good teaching and learning within the new parameters. 

What have you learned from your students?

One of my first courses as a young teacher was a grade 10 Applied English. The class was bright, lively and unforgettable. There was a full-sized skeleton abandoned by a Health class in the corner of our room. He watched over us. Whenever I think of that class, that absurd skeleton reminds me of how much fun we had there. 

It was my first real experience in an Applied setting. Teachers almost always come out of the Academic stream themselves (or 'Advanced' as it used to be known). Those kids really made me think about what it means to learn English in an Applied manner. It felt watered down and limiting. Those students taught me that educators do not necessarily know what's best for students. That we need to stop putting students in streams and categories that we have constructed to supposedly serve them, but which instead serve our own biases and those of the institution.


What is your advice to students dealing with the challenges of learning amidst the pandemic?

Empathy for others who have had to learn in difficult circumstances might help students make peace with the normality they have lost in pandemic. I went to school with, and have taught, students coming from refugee camps, from violent conflict. It helps us all to remember that despite the challenges, we have privileges. That said, many of my students deal with a lot of inequity already. They are under multiple kinds of pressure, exacerbated and diversified by the pandemic. To them, and to all students, I would say, your mental health comes first. Talk to your teachers; reach out if you are struggling. This is an extraordinary time and expectations of you are tempered by that.

Kulsoom's essay "The Hip Hop Archive and the High School Student: Symbiotic Knowledge Disruption" will appear in the forthcoming (Intellect Publishers, 2021) Hip-Hop Archives: The Politics and Potentials of Knowledge Production (Forman and Campbell, Eds.). She is also developing a English curriculum resource which you can learn more about here. Catch up with Kulsoom on Twitter @KulsoomAnwer.