Spotlight On Our Director John!

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By Mary Clements

The road to language learning has many peaks and valleys and is definitely not straight. One person’s path can look vastly different from someone else’s.

In this week’s newsletter I wanted to highlight a very special member of our team, our Program Director and Teacher: John BurkeOne of the teams he leads is our tutoring team, so some of you may already know him as he’s the one who conducts them in order to discover a family’s goals and match the student to the best LPP tutor for their needs.

I asked our awesome teacher and book writer, Juana if she could chat with John about his own process of learning French. Check out their honest conversation below:

Les Petites Pommes Spotlight: John Burke

Why did you start learning french? 

It is hard to say. I went to french immersion and my parents made that choice for me, but a safe bet it’s because of heritage from my mom’s side of the family. My grandmother spoke french fluently. However, while I continued through french immersion, this was not something that carried through with my siblings. My brother had a language delay growing up and my parents took him out of french immersion. My sister just never went in so I was the only one to complete French Immersion.

Many of our students who are in French Immersion say that they have a hard time in school. How was your experience being in a French immersion school? 

It was very similar. My experience was that I would do okay even if I didn’t try too hard but there wasn’t a personal connection to the language for me. It was just something that I had always done at school. I finally failed a class in grade 11, French Business, which was just more grammar. I was very disinterested in school at the time and so when I failed that class I was really just ready to check out. But then my parents insisted that I finish the French immersion program because I was so close. I actually ended up being in one of Mary’s classes to make up for that class that I had failed. My last class of French Immersion was, i think, grade 13 French and then I didn’t really do much with that bilingual certificate for a couple of years after graduating. I just didn’t really enjoy it. I even tried to take one class in university but it was just more grammar and I was like “nope. I’m bored. I don’t like this”.  It was more by chance that I started using French again. I was working a summer job at the department of Family Medicine at McMaster and the director wanted someone who could tutor her daughter in French.

How did you develop your personal relationship with French?

It wasn’t until some time after school that I developed a personal relationship with French. After a couple of years of not using it at all I just kind of started to play with it. I would talk  to myself out loud just to hear it because I ultimately missed it. I also think French and English work lovely for poetry. I remember there was a moment when I was playing around with the word “alarm” in English and “une larme” in french, which means “a tear” and I thought there was something really beautiful there. I’m also a huge language nerd and so I’ve always loved to know the meaning and the history behind words.

What was the process of you coming from an English and Philosophy major and then deciding to go into teaching? 

It was really weird. I actually had no interest in teaching when I was in university, but when I finished the program I had a couple of years of not knowing what to do with myself. When I entered the Educational Assistant program it was a very abrupt change. In that program I had many opportunities to work with special needs students. I even worked as a special needs counselor and I was already doing tutoring every year, so in the end there was this very natural progression of “yeah, this feels really good. I want to keep doing this”.

Did your experience as an educational assistant influence your decision to stay in tutoring as opposed to becoming a homeroom teacher or working with the school board? 

So even when I went to teacher’s college I didn’t want to work for the school board. I have very strong beliefs and I think that teaching and learning can look different to what we usually have in schools, and that is what I try to offer with my tutoring. I’m going to share what I know works, but I also want to teach the kids to be self-directive, because kids are already so curious. They already know and want to learn; I just have to foster that joy. They all start off being so curious about the world and then the system doesn’t always serve them and it breaks my heart to see that.

How would you describe your teaching style?

It is a combination of trying to bring joy to the process and using the language. I like to call myself a benevolent dictator and bonding with them to find what inspires them is one of my favourite things and I encourage their process. I also want them to use the language for things that they love. We are not learning the language for language’s sake, and grammar is a small piece of the pie of the things that we learn in class. I want them to find their motivation, stuff that matters to them that encourages them to use the language.

You are very much a mentor not only to your students but for many of us tutors at Les Petites Pommes. What is one piece of advice you would give young tutors, French learners and parents who want to help their children learn French?

We are all learning, so give yourself some grace. We’re all learning whether to teach, through experience, or just learning to do something new, and we all start off being bad at it. Make mistakes, ask for help and create a support network. Come with a growth mindset and be gentle on yourself.