By Melinda Maldonado
Dean Khaled was early the day things didn’t go as planned. The lights were off in the classroom where he teaches French every Saturday. Then he saw some movement inside that dark room – and a group of men bursts out on a mission: to distract Khaled and stop him from setting foot in the classroom.
Khaled’s students had surprised him with a birthday party – complete with cake, cards, and homemade food. “One student actually cooked a chicken pie,” he said, pulling out a smartphone to show pictures of his birthday surprise this year.
The party is a sign of the bond he’s built with his group at the Mennonite New Life Centre’s French program over the last two years. “They’re not students, but friends,” he said.
Khaled has enjoyed meeting students from so many different backgrounds. “I had a psychologist, a lawyer, teachers, journalists, doctors,” he said.
He’s used the diversity of his students to turn the classroom into a multicultural learning space – and worked student presentations on their countries of origin into the curriculum. “I never knew things about Sri Lanka, Colombia, Chile,” he said.
Khaled was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and grew up speaking French, English, and Arabic. “We joke that you say ‘Hi, keefak, çava,’” he said of Lebanon, a former French colony. After finishing a master’s degree in his home country, he spent eight years working as a marketing consultant in Kuwait and Qatar. When he was ready for a change in 2010, he moved to Toronto.
A visit to the YMCA in September 2010 led him to the MNLCT’s French program. He wanted to brush up on the language he’d studied for most of his life and was struck by the welcoming environment. “You come here, you feel so comfortable,” he said.
When a teaching position opened up five months later, he snapped it up – and has been a volunteer French teacher for two years.
Khaled said it was initially a challenge to develop a curriculum. He had taught marketing at the university level, but never a language class.
He took an approach based on the idea that learning a new language includes learning a new culture. As a result, he’s taken students to activities like French Toastmasters, a French festival, and even stand-up comedy.
“[The students] could go to any class in the world. I should give them something of value so they feel like they want to come back,” he said. “I always look for ways to make things more interesting.”
Khaled is a big believer in the importance of learning French for people who live in Canada. “It’s part of being a member of this country,” he said.
He also points out that language skills can help you stand out in Toronto’s competitive job market. “Whatever makes you competitive is something you should look for and develop your skills,” he said. “French is one of those areas”
Khaled has a good understanding of making it in a competitive market. Within two months of arriving in Canada, he was hired at IBM. He now works for the Inside Sales department and handles social media for the company’s software team.
However, he takes his commitment as a volunteer seriously. “I remember one time when there was training at work. I skipped the training so I could go to class,” he said.
Thanks to that class, he had a surprise birthday party this year, but that wasn’t the only way Khaled celebrated.
“Each year I want to do something interesting for my birthday,” he said. This year it was skydiving. “For me, the jump was actually about letting go of everything and starting all over again,” he said.
It’s that same hunger for change and fresh starts that led Khaled to Canada – and to the MNLCT French program.