Amadou Talla

Amadou standing next to a Senegalese painting in his classroom.

“My greatest hope for my students is that they will acquire French as a language of communication and culture, to take through life.”

French Instructor Amadou Talla attributes his polyglot prowess (he speaks four languages) to growing up in the Senegalese city of Thies, where he first spoke Fulani and Wolof, and later French. For English, he gives credit where credit is due: to Bob Marley.

“I discovered Bob Marley and reggae music when I was 13,” recalls Talla. “I loved that music so much, and thought that there was so much beauty in the language, that I vowed to become an English teacher when I grew up.” After attending the University of Dakar, where he specialized in teaching English as a foreign language, he did just that.

Although Talla began his teaching career in Senegal, he was eager to see how other countries and cultures approached the profession. He first had the opportunity to do so in 1996, when he spent three months as an international camp counselor at Camp Treetops in Lake Placid, New York.

Two years later, he returned to the U.S. again, this time as the music and drama specialist at a YMCA camp in Massachusetts. Drawn to the area and its students, he secured full-time teaching positions at two Springfield charter schools before landing at the Powder Mill School in Southwick in 2005 where, for 10 years, he taught French and Spanish to middle schoolers. For Talla, the experience was formative.

“Working with kids that age requires a different set of skills,” he explains. “You have to be especially attentive to how the kids are feeling and to what they are saying. I learned how to be in tune with teenagers.”

While Talla loved and valued teaching at the elementary and middle school levels, he never stopped dreaming about his passion for teaching English as a second language. “No matter how successful non-natives are at learning and speaking English,” he says, “they still consider themselves learners. The longer I was in Springfield, the more I wanted to help other adults who were new to the language.” On top of a full-time teaching job and after-school coaching responsibilities, Talla launched two ESL programs in local neighborhoods.

Yet, after a decade of teaching at Powder Mill, Talla found himself feeling restless. “All of my teaching jobs have been unique and fascinating,” he says, “but I was growing eager to return to teaching high-level French literature, as I had done early in my career.”

In 2015, he interviewed with Assistant Principal and History Instructor Ron Kim at a placement fair in Boston. Talla was soon invited to the Academy for a full interview, a process he found refreshing compared to his experiences with other schools.

Aside from the caliber of students, he explains, Exeter was “the only school that let the kids interact with me and ask questions; the only school that asked me about my interests and what I wanted out of teaching; the only school that got to the bottom of what I care about and tapped into my desire to teach colonial and post-colonial African literature. Instead of feeling scrutinized, the message I got from the instructors who interviewed me was, ‘This is what we do — do you want to be a part of it?’ ” He did.

Talla now teaches three levels of French (introductory, intermediate and advanced), oversees 11 boys as the head of Dow House, and coaches girls junior varsity soccer.

He says he loves “being able to do so much in one place,” and delights in introducing his upper-level students to authors like Yazmina Reza, Azouz Begag, Francois Gravel and Albert Camus: “My greatest hope for my students is that they will acquire French as a language of communication and culture, something to take through life.”

—Melanie Nelson

Editor's note: This article appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.