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As an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at Conestoga
High School since 2000, Kathryn Willis Burling finds that one of the
most satisfying aspects of her job is writing college recommendations.
After all, most of her students arrive in her classroom with little
English language proficiency, so it is a special joy to recommend them
since she has been a part of their progress as they aspire to receive a
According to Burling, there are two levels of language acquisition:
social/conversational and academic. It takes approximately two years to
acquire social English—day-to-day English, which is known as basic
interpersonal communication skills—and five to seven years to fully
grasp academic language that includes reading, writing, listening and
speaking skills and is known as cognitive academic language proficiency.
“The English language learner (ELL) acquires daily English,
and learns academic English, the English necessary for understanding
core subjects,” stated Burling. Studying math, science, literature and
social studies is both a language learning experience and a concept
Take for instance an ELL in science class; she hears a term such as
“mercury,” and the teacher introduces the concept of mercury rising in
a thermometer, meaning the climate is becoming hotter. The ELL has
both the new language and the new concept to consider and thus has
double the work! And don’t even try to underestimate how difficult a
literature class can be for English learners.
Burling also commented on the value of English learners being
proficient in their native language, as the process of learning a second
language becomes easier that way.
So, when one of her students is accepted into college, Burling is
overjoyed. Recently, a young woman from Pakistan, who only attended
Conestoga High School for a year and a half, was accepted into her
first choice, George Washington University. Some of Burling’s other
students who arrived in America with limited English, but successfully
acquired English as their second language, have become pharmacists,
engineers and successful businessmen and women.
Burling earned a Master of Arts in Cultural and Linguistic
Diversity from Immaculata in 2005. She now combines her high school
teaching with graduate school teaching. She loves what she does.
She embraces the concept of cultural competence in her life as
well as her teaching. To her, this means an awareness of one’s own
individual culture, the diversity of cultures, and an understanding of
how individual and diverse cultures enrich everyone’s life and learning
experiences. For example, when Burling’s class is discussing a story
about a Chinese family and one of her students is Chinese, the entire
class benefits from the Chinese student’s experiences, perspectives, and
stores of knowledge about Chinese culture. Discussions in her class have
a way of including a great diversity of viewpoints due to the variety of
Recounting some of her stories over the
years, she laughs at one in particular. Many
of her ninth grade students will have had a
couple of years to acclimate to U.S. culture
before “prom season” rolls around. They “get”
the importance of the junior and senior prom
experience. The ninth graders see it as a rite of
passage much like most U.S.-born students do,
whereas the international students who enroll in
an American high school as upperclassmen have
not had the time to understand the significance
After graduating with a degree in
elementary education and a minor in speech
from Western Pennsylvania’s Westminster College, which is affiliated
with the Presbyterian Church, Burling eventually began her graduate
studies at Immaculata University and appreciated the Catholic perspective
as well. “Faith plays a big role in everything in my life,” she said simply.
Another vital part of her life is her family, and her number one
job as wife and mom. After completing her undergraduate degree at
Westminster, Burling married and taught sixth grade for a semester. She
knew she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so when her first son was
born, she took a hiatus from teaching until all four of her children were
“My age group was right on the cusp of the stay-at-home mom versus
the working mom culture shift. My sister was only four years younger and
seemed a generation removed on that matter.” Not to worry, Burling has
the fondest of memories of that time period and is grateful that people’s
views have shifted back to respecting stay-at-home parenting. She feels
blessed that she had the opportunity to be at home with her children as
they grew into adults.
A few years ago, Burling was invited by World Harvest Ministries
to be a member of a mission team going to Granada, Spain. There, she
was chosen to teach English to the “youngest of the young” because of
her nursery school teaching experience. She felt it was a wonderful way to
give back to the community and enrich the lives of some of the children
of Granada by teaching them English. As another way of contributing to
the extra-curricular education of children, Burling serves as an advisor to
the MultiCulture Club at Conestoga. Starting with only four students,
the club now boasts 30 members.
Burling and her husband of 45 years, Eric, have 10 grandchildren
with another one due soon. Besides power walking, reading and traveling,
she truly loves grandparenting. “I just love babies,” she said. And it’s
evident that she loves Immaculata—why else would she still have an
Immaculata University sticker on the back of her car?
Kathryn Willis Burling ’05 M.A.