She was supposed to hear by March 15 whether she’d been chosen as the nation’s best high school teacher of French. So when the moment passed, and she hadn’t heard anything, she assumed she lost. When word did finally arrive, Caroline Little found herself unable to process what had happened.
“I got this e-mail but I didn’t believe what I was reading,” she said. “I printed it out and gave it to the secretary in the school office to read. I said, ‘Did I win?’ And she said, ‘Yes!’ And I started jumping up and down.”
Little, 36, who grew up in Marine on St. Croix, has been for 13 years the entire French department at St. Thomas Academy, the private Catholic school in Mendota Heights.
Demanding, animated, even theatrical, she spoke in an interview of going from a Huck Finn-style childhood in Washington County to — she believes — only the third Minnesotan ever to be honored in this way by the American Association of Teachers of French.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: My entire childhood was in Marine on St. Croix, and I loved it. We lived across the highway from a retreat center which had a lot of land, five acres and behind them was more land owned by William O’Brien State Park and the Boy Scouts, a huge nature preserve, so we went out in the woods for hours, my brother and sister and I, and had forts all over the place.
Q: What drew you to languages?
A: My dad worked for 3M as an applied physicist, so there were a lot of science experiments on the dining room table. He would travel a lot to Japan and it was very important in my family to have a second language and we all had to do a program abroad in high school. I chose French to be different: everyone else did German.
Q: Where did you start teaching?
A: For one year in Mauston, Wisconsin; then here.
Q: An all-boy military academy seems like an odd place to teach French.
A: It’s true that French is seen as a language mostly girls take, but I tell the boys to take more of it in college because that’s where the girls will be.
As for the military, when I take students abroad, we take them to see where the D-Day landings were, and it’s always something they probably find more moving and get more out of than the average student.
Q: You take them overseas!
A: Yes, every 2-3 years. We went last summer for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, in fact we were there just a week or so after the big anniversary celebration.
Q: How did the award come about?
A: I work in the College in the Schools program with a pair of colleagues from other schools, LaRae Ellingson and Linda Albertson. We get together two to four times a year to work on different things, and they could see that I love creating things, drawing, doing handouts, and it’s nice because I’m ‘the department’ all by myself here but I am able to share with others and with that sharing, they were saying ‘It would be really nice to get you recognized.’
Q: Do you seek to instill a love of France?
A: My real goal is for them to understand there’s a world beyond themselves. So much of life for their generation these days is ‘me me me,’ Twitter, Snapchat, it’s all about THEM. Well, actually, from a wider view it’s not all about them; they will interact later with people who don’t care if they had a Diet Coke for lunch or not.
Q: How do they react to the ways of the French?
A: The first thing out of their mouth is always, ‘That’s weird!’ We’ve got to get beyond that, ‘That’s weird!’ I remember in a book a mention of raising rabbits for people to eat and it’s like ‘People eat RABBITS!?’ Yes, they do!
Q: What is your day like?
A: I start at Caribou at 5:30 a.m., I’m a regular, I just show my cup, I don’t even have to order, just ‘fill it with my normal,’ then it’s prep for about two hours, and sometimes kids come in for tutoring early. I teach either five or six hours a day, depending on the day, and then tutor till 3:15 and work out in the workout room, then pick up my kids, sometimes correct homework at home or sometimes Mom stuff, I have two girls, 7 and 5. Late in the afternoon I do another hour of prep. I’m very motivated and driven. I do get tired, obviously. I have my moments where it’s, ‘Why am I doing this?’
Q: What engages you about the job?
A: I love working here because I get to know kids really well. I have some seniors I have taught for six years. As I’m short, myself, they come in just my size as 7th-graders and end up 6-foot-4 and I see this journey from boy to young man. … I love the atmosphere here: I can push them and expect the best of them. I’m developing my own textbook for level 4 honors, and the intro book is one I wrote myself and used my art skills for that: I’m constantly able to grow.