From learning to teaching

Growing up, Katie Tomten ’12 had always been familiar with the French language.

“My mom grew up in a French-speaking country,” she says. “She was the one who first introduced me to the language.”

After completing French courses throughout her middle and high school years, the Stillwater, Minnesota, native started her first-year at the College of Saint Benedict with plans to minor in French studies.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but I knew that foreign language would provide me an interdisciplinary course of study,” Tomten says. “Foreign language holds a unique place in a college community — you can learn anything.”

When Tomten began her sophomore year, she decided to double major in French studies and art.

“The great thing about the program is that it wasn’t completely centered on France and Eurocentric populations,” Tomten says. “It widened my perspective by including all of the [French-speaking] countries. I really appreciated the cultural themes outside of the European viewpoint.”

Because the French major offered a multidisciplinary approach to learning, Tomten’s experience in the classroom felt different.

“I definitely learned a ton of history, music, gender roles—the things you would expect to learn in more specific departments,” she says. “Professor [Camilla] Krone was one who influenced me the most. She definitely has expanded my views on what the French culture means and what kind of comparisons we can make between our lives here.”

Student to teacher transition

After graduating from CSB, Tomten joined Teach For America (TFA), a nonprofit organization that recruits and develops college graduates and professionals from around the country to teach in high-need school districts.

Tomten’s two-year placement landed her in Birmingham, Alabama, where she took the place of a retired French teacher. At the time, most of her students were enrolled in online French courses.

“Learning foreign language in front of a computer is almost ineffective,” Tomten says. “I went down to the computer lab and said that if they would like to join my class, they can.”

The following year, Tomten’s class increased in size.

“In my classroom, you can expect a lot of movement and participation,” she says. “It’s very much a place of action. That’s how I ensure that I’m reaching all of my kids. If one of them is not strong in reading but is a strong visual learner, then I work to capture them in a different way using different methods.”

Over the next few years, French enrollments increased from 30 students in 2013 to 200 students in 2015.

“When you teach a foreign language, you have subsequent levels,” Tomten says. “Every year I have the students who are wishing to go up a level. We’ve built this relationship where it is expected that you’re going to continue your language studies. It’s hard to leave that environment, especially when you know kids will be waiting for you. It’s great to watch them grow from year to year.”

Once Tomten completed her two-year commitment with Teach For America, she stayed on with Birmingham City Schools for an additional three years.

 “The TFA experience is unique and not easy to do or simple to describe,” Tomten says. “CSB taught me not to accept anything as strictly black and white—there is never one answer to a problem or situation. As a high school teacher, we experience that every day, and being able to navigate those situations has been advantageous.”

In the fall of 2017, Tomten will take a one-year leave of absence to attend the education policy and management program at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts.