Transylvania alumna teaching high school French

Félicitations! Transylvania alumna wins statewide award for excellence in teaching French

by John Friedlein, photos by Heiraelle Osborne

Lydia Wilson Kohler got her passion for French from her dad, who studied it in school and used to sing her little songs like “Frère Jacques.”

Now she’s passing along her enthusiasm to French students at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, Kentucky — in a way that’s drawing acclaim.

Kohler, who graduated from Transylvania University in 2001, recently received this year’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award from the Kentucky World Language Association.

“French culture and language are worth knowing about,” said Kohler, whose commitment to excellence in teaching French was noted by the KWLA.

“Her passion for Francophone language and culture and her ability to create a stimulating and engaging learning environment make her an outstanding teacher,” the organization said. She gives her students an “opportunity to witness the language in action” and “deepen their understanding of French history, culture and traditions firsthand.”

Her passion for Francophone language and culture and her ability to create a stimulating and engaging learning environment make her an outstanding teacher.

Kentucky World Language Association

After her initial exposure to the language from her father, her high school French teacher Lesia Eldridge gave her the self-assurance to pursue it as a profession. Eldridge even took Kohler to some master’s level classes at Morehead State University before she was even an undergraduate — and she was able to keep up. “There was something there, and she saw it, developed it and gave me confidence.”

Once at Transylvania, Kohler doubled-majored in French language and literature plus education. Looking back at her undergraduate years, she appreciates what she learned both in the classes directly related to her current job and beyond — from education professor Angela Hurley’s advice on how to be present and listen to students (“like a cow”) to making pottery with professor Dan Selter to touring abroad with Gary Anderson’s choir. She said her entire experience at Transylvania affects her every day.

Kohler went right into teaching after graduation (before taking a year off as a Rotary Ambassadorial scholar in Avignon, France). After the first week in her own classroom, she remembers thinking, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this. This is so fun.”

I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this. This is so fun.

Lydia Kohler

While enjoyable, the job called for a certain amount of self-reliance because of the nature of her subject. She was the only French teacher at the school where she started in rural Falmouth, Kentucky. “I was the French program,” she said. “I knew what it was like to paddle my own canoe.” 

Kohler, who’s also the lone French teacher at GRCHS, has drawn support from the same group that gave her the recent award. Attending KWLA conferences and other events helped her develop as a teacher. “All of a sudden you’re around people who understand what you can do and give you great ideas about things.”

For more than a decade, Kohler has directed KWLA’s State Showcase, where students from across Kentucky are recognized for language proficiency. Under various names, the event has been around since she attended it as a high school student (Transylvania hosted it back then). Her other roles with KWLA have included secretary and regional representative liaison. “It’s a labor of love for sure,” she said of all the meetings and volunteer hours involved.

Kohler has been invited to represent the KWLA at the Southern Conference on Language Teaching in March and is a candidate for the SCOLT Teacher of the Year award. She could then go on to compete for the National Language Teacher of the Year honor from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The KWLA said Kohler’s recent award “recognizes an individual of the world language teaching profession who has demonstrated long-term achievement and service to the profession.”

Her other recognitions include the Outstanding French Teacher award in 2014 from the Kentucky chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French.

Kohler, who has a master’s degree from Georgetown College and a National Board certification, has taught French 101 and 102 at Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead in addition to her classes in all levels at GRCHS.

In the classroom and abroad, Kohler makes learning French interesting for her students. For instance, she’s adopted a teaching philosophy based on storytelling called comprehensible input. Her classes get to know fictional characters who often do silly things that are memorable, like Gertrude the complainer demanding more hotel towels even though she’s got plenty. Kohler said her students really get into these narratives, which often can be easier for them to talk about than real life (e.g., their own families). “They’re our characters — they’re our people.”

She’s also taken students to the Normandy region of northern France four times; the trips paused for the pandemic, but she plans to eventually resume them. Kohler is good friends with Patrick Fissot, a history teacher there who’s a WWII historian and owns a museum. He’s full of stories her students find interesting and informative.

It’s important you start to learn a language. That’s really what it’s about, getting out of your little corner of the world, realizing we’re more alike than different.

Lydia Kohler

Back in the States, Kohler often finds herself telling people why it’s worth learning about the country and its language — something that’s been evident to her since she was little. “I was always fascinated by the culture and the history and the food … oh, my gosh, the food.” 

But with Spanish spoken more around here, French can be a tough sell (more so to parents than students). However, at the high school level in particular, it’s not so important what language you start to learn — “it’s important you start to learn a language,” she said. “That’s really what it’s about, getting out of your little corner of the world, realizing we’re more alike than different.”

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