Ann Tollefson’s career in language education is a story of passion, pioneering, and embracing change. Beginning as a junior high French teacher, her journey spans decades including roles as a high school teacher, district administrator, and state supervisor of languages. But her path wasn’t always clear-cut. It was a journey marked by serendipity and a willingness to embrace opportunities as they arose. Her initial foray into languages wasn’t driven by a clear vision of becoming a national leader in language education; it was a journey that unfolded step by step.

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Ann Tollefson with a group of students in Paris, France

When Ann began teaching in 1963 she discovered a deep love for the profession, despite the challenges of outdated teaching materials and methods prevalent at the time. She recalls the era of audio-lingual methodology, where students memorized dialogs without truly understanding them. This highlighted the lack of a common definition of proficiency and performance assessment in what she describes was like the “pioneer days”.

Ann quickly recognized that the language field had a lot of work to do to deliver learning experiences that prepared students for using their skills in the real world.

Ann’s experiences also revealed the geographical divides in language education. She recalled a presentation on distance learning at her first ACTFL meeting from a representative from Minnesota. In places like her home state of Wyoming, distance learning was often the only opportunity for students to learn languages other than English. When a representative from the East Coast questioned why distance learning was important, Ann realized the unique perspective to the field she could bring. This inspired her to continue pursuing advocacy in leadership roles, culminating in her election as ACTFL President in 1997.

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Ann Tollefson in front of her first art gallery.

Reflecting on her career, Ann emphasizes the importance of being open to change and new opportunities. Her advice to young people is to be adventurous, create their own paths, and not be confined to a single role or identity. Her diverse experiences, including involvement in the humanities and a Fulbright Hayes trip to Africa, have enriched her teaching and outlook. Ann also developed a passion for art, creating what she describes as a “second career” as an artist.

One of Ann’s enduring hopes is the widespread adoption of dual language immersion, especially for children in rural areas who might not have exposure to diverse languages and cultures. She believes that every child should have the opportunity to learn in such an enriching environment that can significantly broaden their worldview.

Ann Tollefson’s story is not just about the titles she held or the roles she played. It’s about a lifelong commitment to language education and the belief that every individual can make a difference. Her journey is a testament to the power of passion, advocacy, perseverance, and the willingness to embrace and drive change in the world of language learning.