An Interview With Madame Burke

Carmella Neal, Editor

Madame Burke selfieFor a lot of kids, school was Dungeons and Dragons Club or meeting their friends at lunch.” 

Madame Burke teaches French and Freshman English at Lakes High School. Like most teachers, she is doing the best she can to get students engaged and awaken out of the learning slumber online school has created. Burke’s energy and motivation has helped her throughout the test that the Coronavirus has given, as a young and new teacher, as well as throughout her own life.  

From Olympia to Rouen  

Adopted from Daegu City, South Korea and raised in Olympia, Washington, Burke grew up with six other siblings in a low-income household. When she was younger, she described herself—and still does—as an indoor kid. While her siblings did taekwondo and soccer, her parents asked her what she was interested. She decided French. Language had always inspired her.  

During middle school, Burke had an English teacher who spoke fluent Spanish. “She was a colorful person,” Burke says, incorporating Spanish literature into the class to widen her students’ understanding of worldliness. 

Although it was uncommon, a young Burke was taken aback by her teacher, and found herself in French lessons with a known French-speaker in her community. She ended up taking the language in high school and followed through with her interests.  

Reading was also foundational to Burke’s interests in English and world language, “It was such an integral part of my childhood. The stories that I grew up with became a part of my identity.”  

After high school, she found herself at Western Washington University, receiving her Undergraduate and soon after Masters. She double-majored in English and French with a focus in Creative Writing.  

“I’ve always loved reading,” she explains, “I’ve always loved the idea of being a writer, but as I got older, I realized I needed to be a bit more pragmatic.”  

Burke decided to put her natural skills in communication and extensive knowledge in literature to good use: she found herself molding together every aspect of what she had learned in school into what she wanted to make a living out of: That pursuit was teaching. Soon enough, Burke accepted an internship in Rouen, France, where she had the opportunity to teach French high schoolers, les lycéens, English in her own way.  

A few years later with gained experience and “baptism by fire,” Burke took a job at Lakes High School.  

World Language Should Not Be Niche  

As a young teacher, Burke’s familiarity within the school system is still growing, and she will expand her experiences in the years to come.  

However, by teaching world language, Burke lives out and understands the different cultures that come along with speaking French, Spanish, Japanese and others taught in school. She argues that culture is the importance of world languages’ implementation within the school system. By exposing students to languages separate from their first, new perspectives may be gained.  

It hasn’t always been that easy: Burkes tells us too, the past conflicts of trying to legitimize language as an important—fortunately now required—skill for a school credit and curriculum system.  

Although she is only two years into teaching and has growing experience in the department, she believes the previous lack of acknowledgement for foreign language in the American public school system comes down to the country’s ideals, “I think it’s cultural honestly, because the states treat language and our culture treats multilingualism like it’s an anomaly.” Burke connects this to the distinct thread of individualism in America.  

Burke says that this part of the American identity can be violated and used to isolate ourselves from needed experiences to break down the ‘real-world’ complex that adults use to alienate young people from outside of the classroom. In reality, this ‘real-world’ should be a completion of the classroom. At Lakes, Burke explains, students are already experiencing what some adults describe to be so far off: i.e. racial injustice, premature adulting, mental health, etc. 

Aside from the exposure that foreign language proposes to a younger generation, Burke says that it activates the cognitive part of our brain, curbs dementia, and even helps us multi-task.  

Specifically in her French classes, students bring depth to their skills in communication. Burke says, “It’s a skill that’s not specific just to world languages, it’s a skill that is needed to experience the full extent of human consciousness. 

Madame Burke’s classes are fueled with creative opportunities, comprehensive learning games, an eclectic array of French/francophone media, and of course, candy incentivization. In class, students choose a French name, as if choosing a different persona. She explains that it is good for her students who are growing up, to experiment and learn more about themselves through different outlets.  

BIPOC Students and Teachers  

While the majority of staff at Lakes is white, the students tell a different story. As the student body is composed mainly of BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) students from various backgrounds—a notable one being the military—are eligible for a select number of clubs, such as African-American Club, Pacific Islander Club, and First-Gen Club. These groups work on unifying minority communities within the school as a whole. 

But after teaching at Lakes for two years, Burke saw the dynamic of disconnectedness between students and teachers in specific settings, uncorrected by these student-led clubs. 

Burke intentionally incorporates her own personal narrative into class to create a reputable and open space for students to discuss their own stories aligned with class topics. She tells us that, “Real equity work is going to come first from the lived experiences of BIPOC teachers.” She relates her methods to the simple principle that educators, “Don’t just teach what they know, they teach who they are.” She demands for the reflection of identity within the curriculum.   

During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Burke reached out to all of her students, equipping them with support and resources. She even invited some of the Black community’s local artists to share their art and voice with students, out of the mutual pain and anxiety dealt.   

It is no surprise to her colleagues and mentees that she has proven her devotion to integrating the BIPOC narrative wherever she is. “It is a teacher’s responsibility to prepare their students for world-readiness,” she says. 

Her efforts reached even further to her response to the protests. Prior to June, Burke created the Lancer Lab— back to when LHS was still in-person—named, This Be I: Empowered Work for Race and Equity.   

The group originally held three students. Burke facilitated discussions and activities, streamlining difficult questions and topics that spanned from normal to foreign for the students of color involved.  

Soon enough, the Lancer Lab’s membership grew from three, to five regular students, promising more for the future. Unfortunately, the pandemic cut off the meetings, but Burke set up a group on Microsoft Teams where BIPOC and their allies can meet. The current membership is at its largest since the last meeting, with seven students total, carrying traction as Lakes enters winter and the closing of the semester in following months. As Lancer Lab does not exist currently, Burke and her students are working to write a constitution, elect leaders, and write This Be I into a legitimate club.  Vocal students and students who want to listen are encouraged and welcome to join. 

This Be I, is continuously changing to suit student needs and respond to a turbulent climate in and out of schools regarding racial conversation.  

Madame looks to guide her students during meetings through decompression, problem-solving, empowering identities, and finding solace. She and her students’ goal is to access tools to navigate a white-dominant society.  

Is The Lakes Way Lived Out? 

As previously mentioned, Burke does not believe in teaching on the basis of shielding students from problems they already face and censoring class topics, especially in an election year that has been making history since it began in January.  

To some of her colleagues, Burke is described as fiery and enthusiastic. Although it is evident that Lakes is a pioneer school for elevating its diverse populations, Burke says that there is a lot of opportunity for improvement. Burke in particular, wishes to see Lakes sever ties with Lakewood Police, get SROs out of the school and hire BIPOC staff and admin.  

Madame Burke is also working on changing the dialogue between divided students and teachers. 

“I need to be a bit more diplomatic,” she says, but it does not change her fierceness in dismantling the red tape that administration and general authority creates to affirm and preserve their concept of power. She says there is an obsession with neutrality, and it is ineffective when teaching. “Sometimes you’ve gotta just wave your arms and be a little vitriolic to get people to do what you want them to do, which is to support students of color,” she says, “That is what I want at the end of the day, I want students to have as many adults in their life as possible while supporting them, being in their corner and representing their identities in the curriculum.”  

The Online Marathon  

With nearly eight months until the end of the school year and no end in sight for Covid-19,  teachers are hunkering down and preparing to teach classes online for the remainder of the academic year. It has been a challenge for everyone. 

I just want people to be taking care of themselves. I feel like students don’t have to be doing extra work to be excellent. Simply because they exist, they are excellent, and they exist very valuably!” She continues, “If this pandemic happened when I was their age, my family would have been struggling so much.”  

There aren’t any clear answers pertaining to the continuation of the Lakes dynamic and its translation online, but Burke wants to remind her students to prioritize self-care. “Hydrate, get rest, and make sure your emotional needs are being met first,” she advises. Burke says that living in a pandemic is not normal, and that we should remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can.  

Burke advises that reaching out is critical to make it through. “I know how difficult it is, especially when people are embarrassed and they want to preserve their pride and dignity, but I hope that students know that there are people who are there for them, that there are people who are unconditionally in their corner and that they don’t have to go far to find those people.”