About Dr. Sunaina Sharma
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (@DrSunainaSharma) is an in-school program leader and secondary teacher with over twenty years of experience teaching with the Halton District School Board in Burlington, ON. She strives to put the learner’s needs at the forefront of all program planning, classroom teaching, and professional learning so that students participate in authentic and relevant knowledge construction.
Her doctoral research centred on understanding how to leverage digital technology in the classroom so that it supports student engagement. In her current role as an instructor and practicum advisor at a Bachelor of Education program, she uses her knowledge, skills and experience to guide future educators.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. Today we have a very special guest. Her name is Dr. Sunaina Sharma. Dr. Sunaina Sharma is an in-school program leader and secondary teacher with over 20 years experience teaching with the Halton District School Board in Burlington, Ontario. She strives to put the learners needs at the forefront of all program planning, classroom teaching, and professional learning, so that students are participating in authentic and relevant knowledge construction. Her doctoral research is centered on understanding how to leverage digital technologies in the classroom so that it supports student engagement. In her current role as an instructor and practicum advisor at Brock University at a Bachelor of Education program, she is using her knowledge, skills, and experience to guide future educators. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dr. Sunania Sharma and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. And today we are joined with a very special guest, Dr. Sunaina Sharma. Dr. Sunaina Sharma actually uses one of my TED talks in her classroom, <laugh> which prompted her to reach out, and I’m so excited to have her on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (02:18):
Hi, I’m Sunaina Sharma and I have been an educator for over 20 years, and despite all the challenges, it is still my passion.
Sam Demma (02:30):
What made it your passion over, or I guess 20 years ago, what started this journey for you?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (02:36):
It’s an interesting story because I never intended to become a teacher. My path was set. I was going to go to law school and I was going to be a family lawyer. upon graduating with my Bachelor of Arts degree, I walked down the street from where I lived to the local high school and asked if anyone needed a volunteer because I graduated and I wanted to have more experience working with youth. And an English teacher at that school, Mo leaking, said, Oh, I’d love to have you join my class. My grade elevens are writing essays and they could use some help. So I started by going in twice a week. And what Mr. Leaking did with his students in that classroom was magic. His students were excitedly engaged and I wanted to be a magician like him. So I actually rescinded my acceptance to law school and set up on the path to attain my Bachelor of education.
Sam Demma (03:34):
You mentioned Mr. Leaking was a magician of sorts. What exactly did you witness in his class that got you so excited about doing something similar with your own group of students?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (03:47):
So what he was doing with his students in his classroom was completely different from what I experienced in high school. My high school experience wasn’t very positive and I just remember copying notes and wrote memorization and weekly quizzes and monthly tests. And what he was doing was there was such an energy and excitement in the classroom. There was so much noise and movement, but it was all very planned and calculated. So if you looked through the window of his classroom, it looked chaotic, but it was all like organized chaos. It was so much fun to be in that room. I went from volunteering twice a week to four or five times a week. I just wanted to be in that room.
Sam Demma (04:31):
Oh, that’s so awesome. And what took you from that room to where you are today? Tell me a little bit about your journey through education.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (04:39):
Okay. So I completed my Bachelor of Education in 2001 and immediately got hired by the Halton District School Board at the school that I volunteered at No Way <laugh>. So that, that opportunity allowed me to build connections, real connections with students, but also other educators in the building. So I ended up working for that school until it closed in 2018. And that school was amalgamated into the school that I am currently at, which is mm, Robinson in Burlington. Nice. And I’ve been at that, I’ve been at that school for four years along the way. I do love learning and figuring out how to be a better teacher. That’s always at the root of all of my learning and experiences that I seek out. So along the way, I ended up attaining my master’s degree, my master’s of education, and then I thought I was done, but then I wasn’t and ended up completing my PhD in 2018. So I have my PhD in education. Nice. So with that opportunity, it’s allowed me, I am a department head or program leader in my school. It’s allowed me to not only inspire and engage the people I work with, but it’s also allowed me to work in a Bachelor of education program in mentoring and guiding our future teachers,
Sam Demma (06:03):
Which is such an important role. I think teachers when performing very well and making genuine connections with their classrooms have a very big impact on the future being the kids that are gonna be running the future and being a part of it. I think back to an educator I had in my life who, like Mr. Leaking for you created an environment that all the students in his class wanted to be in. you know, over the past couple of years things have been quite different and a little bit challenging. I’m curious in your roles, what are some of the challenges you’re faced with right now and, and kind of how are you coming, coming, getting out of or getting over some of those things?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (06:43):
Yeah, definitely the current challenges that students are struggling in the classroom after two years of disruptive learning, they do have gaps. And as such, when they encounter difficulty, they get frustrated and the outcome is they’re giving up, they’re struggling to persevere, to overcome the challenges and the obstacles.
Sam Demma (07:03):
Gotcha. H how as as an educator do you kind of support or help a student get over that or get through it? <laugh>
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (07:12):
It’s, it’s offering care and support. We always have to remember that our students are children. Mm. Although they like to present themselves as adults, they are children and we as educators are in a position to teach them we need to reestablish or reteach them. That learning involves failing. Mm. Somehow they’ve learned along the way that failing is bad or wrong and that’s where the unlearning needs to come. And we really need to reinforce that failing is part of learning and they have to fail forward.
Sam Demma (07:46):
I love that. I think back to soccer, growing up as an athlete, our coach would always sit us down after a terrible performance and instead of scolding us, would provide us with the opportunity to chat about it with all of our teammates to try and identify what went wrong and what we could learn from so that, you know, in the future, similar situations wouldn’t unfold again. And it felt like he helped us look at failure as a stepping stone rather than a, you know, an a dead end. So I think that’s a really important lesson to share with young people. what gives you hope? What keeps you motivated and inspired to show up to work every single day and put your best foot forward?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (08:25):
Students and my colleagues give me hope. Students since 2020 actually have gone through four different modes of learning and they continue to still come to school every day and try their best and engage My colleagues give me hope because they’re always reflecting and learning. My department does not have the course binder that we keep reusing every semester or every year. We’re constantly revisiting our courses to make them better. Our courses never remain static. And the fact that my colleagues are willing to put in the work every summer to make the courses better for the upcoming year is inspiring.
Sam Demma (09:06):
I love that. you mentioned thinking about failure not as a challenge, but it’s something to learn from. I’m curious, among your own journey, if there are certain mistakes you’ve made or certain situations that have happened in your career that you’ve learned from that you think are worth sharing with other educators who might be listening?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (09:25):
Yeah, that’s a great question cuz it actually is gonna allow me to talk about my PhD research. I used to think technology engages students and over the years I would encounter various professional development opportunities that introduced me to new technology and that would peak my interest. And I would go home and spend the whole evening planning this amazing lesson for the next day. And the next day as the students would walk into class, I would be excited because I thought I had this amazing lesson planned. And on a number of occasions there was detachment, disinterest, and complete disengagement. The students were not compelled with this lesson that I spent hours the night before planning. So that would have to result in me going to my teacher’s toolbox to just come up with something different for the day. But this happened a number of times and it led me to want to explore the relationship between digital technology and student engagement.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (10:28):
I have seen the power of technology to engage students who have previously been disengaged, but I’ve also seen that sometimes they, the technology itself is what causes them to disconnect. So that actually is what inspired my PhD research because I couldn’t figure out why does technology work sometimes and why doesn’t it work other times? And I learned it’s not the technology that actually engages them, it’s what the technology allows them to do. It’s the outcome. Mm. So if the technology allows students to collaborate, connect, and construct their own knowledge, then it will engage them. So if you’re using technology in a different way than you should dump the use of the technology.
Sam Demma (11:16):
Tell me more about some of the tech tools that you have come across in your journey that you often go back to and consistently use because you think they allow students and teachers to have those three types of interactions.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (11:32):
It’s nothing new. Often I think as teachers we’re looking for the new thing, but it’s often going back to the tools that we have and using them in a different way. Hmm. So for example if you attempt to have a class discussion, you’re always gonna have these few students that are participating in the class discussion. Often all your other students in the classroom have a lot to say, but for whatever reason they’re not raising their hands. Sometimes they just need more time to process to articulate their ideas or they feel like they’re being dominated by this other strong voices in the classroom. So one thing that I do is I’ll have a class discussion on a Google doc. We all use Google Docs, but to suddenly use a Google Doc for a class discussion allows students to carefully read each other’s thoughts process and then thoughtfully share their ideas. When I post a Google Doc as a class discussion, I will typically get 100% participation on that Google Doc. So again, it’s not a brand new tech tool, it’s using the tools that we already have at our fingertips in a different way so that students are able to collaborate and connect and construct their own knowledge.
Sam Demma (12:47):
And if working in groups, each of the groups could have a different color font selected so you could very quickly and live see the edits happening on the document, which is really, really awesome. I think that’s a, that’s so cool that you use Google Docs. I had never have used in a classroom Google Docs live with my classmates and my teacher. I think that’s a really cool idea. So thanks for sharing. you know, we talked a little bit about the learning around technology. what are some things that keep you motivated personally outside of technology? Cuz it seems like it’s a big part of your career. <laugh>,
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (13:29):
The people who I surround myself with are always the ones that are motivating me. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we all have our days where it’s just, it’s not a good day, but suddenly you’ll enter a building and the people around you inspire you. I think educators are incredible people and we are resilient and never give up and that’s what we want to inspire in our students. I’m always working to try and build that self-efficacy and capacity in other educators around me. And this year I’ve actually received a great opportunity. I’m actually on a leave from my teaching position for one year. So I can take on this opportunity as a instructor and practicum advisor in a Bachelor of education program. That way I’m working with our future educators to motivate and inspire them. And it’s really interesting. I entered the program to motivate and inspire them and it has been so motivating for me to see our future educators. They are lifelong learners, they are dedicated to making school positive and they’re dedicated to making positive change in the schools.
Sam Demma (14:43):
Hmm. That must be a pretty cool experience working with the future educators of tomorrow. Right now. I’m curious maybe this, you’ve been in that role for a short period of time so it won’t be as applicable, but tell me about a story or a situation where a program that you ran or maybe you in a program you were a part of had a big impact on a student, whether that’s an educator as a student or an actual student in a high school or middle school.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (15:11):
Yeah. I’ll tell you about our English program at our high school and then I can kind of share a little nugget of information on how that impacted my Bachelor of education program. Sure. But I don’t have a single story cuz how do you capture an amazing program? In, in one story, while I’ll give you a little snapshot, our entire English program focuses on the overarching umbrella of equity. So in our Grade 10 program, our students choose a graphic novel from a selection of nine. And one of the students chose to read a graphic novel and she said, I’ve never read a book for school that had a Muslim character. She’s wearing a hijab. And for me that was impactful because she saw herself in something that she was reading for school. our English program in grade 11 has students identifying what they see as a problem that is impacting equity or is creating an equity.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (16:12):
And they work to identify a solution and try to inspire a larger audience through media to tackle that problem. And that allowed, so one of the grade 11 students actually took on a project to advocate for change. It took her to our school principal, it took her to the parent council, it took her, took her to our school board, and the result was change. she advocated for menstrual products in all hdsp bathrooms regardless of the fact that they were male bathrooms or female bathrooms. And now Htsp has implemented that across the board and that came from a grade 11 students English project.
Sam Demma (16:53):
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (16:55):
The impact of our program is that students are seeing themselves, seeing our community, seeing their global world, and they’re inspired to use their voice for positive change. So I was sharing a little bit of our program with my Bachelor of Education program students and one of my students started to get emotional. So I, I went over and said, Is everything okay? Cuz regardless of the fact that they’re adults, they’re still my students. Yeah. And they’re all humans. And she said, and she began to share a hurtful comment that a teacher had made about her eyes because she’s of Asian descent. And she said, What you are doing in your school with your English program is what I want to do, and now I realize it can be done. Mm. So I think the, when students see themselves in the curriculum, it is so powerful not only for those students, but for us as educators to see that positive impact.
Sam Demma (17:58):
Those nine books, it sounds like, you know, those resources had a big impact on that one student who saw herself in the material shared. I’m wondering for your own personal and professional development, if you have come across any resources throughout your own learning journey that you found really helpful. And this could also be peers but if there’s any books or courses or videos or people you follow that you found helpful what are some of those things?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (18:30):
I don’t like to say this is the golden title. Yeah. This is the Golden Book. As I mentioned, we’re constantly changing our program. We’re on a four year cycle, so every four years we kind of revisit and say, Okay, is this outdated? Should we keep this or should we remove it? So I’m reluctant to name a title, but the news, we’re constantly using the news and having students look at the news. It’s so important. They’re aware of what’s happening in our world. We like to live in this little, I call it the Burlington bubble, but we need to be aware of what’s going on around us. The news is a great resource for me. Also, Ted, that’s how I stumbled across your TED Talk. We use your TED Talk. I think Ted Talk is the platform that we’re trying to create in our students. We want our students to know that their voice matters. Sometimes they say, Why does anyone wanna hear about this? And you go to TED Talk and you hear these amazing pitches or speeches or presentations on topics that you would think maybe wouldn’t have a large audience, but they do. So TED Talk and the news for me are great resources and tools, also documentaries. Hmm.
Sam Demma (19:49):
Awesome. I love that. I, I would love for you to send me <laugh> outside of this podcast, a list of awesome documentaries for my own pleasure watching <laugh>. So please do. is there anything that you would share or say to an educator right now who is feeling a little bit burnt out, a little uninspired and needing not a full pep talk, but maybe some words of advice? and if that person walked into your office at Brock and told you that, what would you kind of share with them?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (20:22):
I would tell them to just take a deep breath and you’re not the only one. Lots of fe people are feeling burnt out and tired. with the ch with the changes in our students and their own self-efficacy they are needing our care and support more so than before the pandemic. I would continue to affirm to them that they are amazing and they’re great. Keep doing your best. If you are doing your best, that’s what matters. And if you’re feeling like you need some support, you really need to count on the people around you. Everyone’s a team and we’re all working together. That’s the case in my department, in the school that I work at, but also in the Bachelor of Education program with the other instructors in the cohort. We’re always leaning on each other for care and support. So I would tell that burnt out teacher, you’re doing great. Take a deep breath. Is there anything that people around you can help support you through?
Sam Demma (21:28):
Mm. Love that. That’s awesome. Well keep up the amazing work that you’re doing with educators. If another educator is listening to this and wants to reach out and ask you a question or share resources or have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (21:44):
The best way to find me is on twitter. I think twitter is such a great way to connect with others from around the world to engage in professional dialogue.
Sam Demma (21:53):
Awesome. What would your Twitter handle be?
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (21:56):
Sam Demma (21:58):
Okay. Awesome. Sunaina thank you so much for making the time to come on the podcast here today. I really appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk to you soon.
Dr. Sunaina Sharma (22:06):
Thank you so much Sam.
Sam Demma (22:08):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.
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