VALDOSTA — Lowndes High School Spanish teacher Carmen Ruddle spends most of her time going by the moniker Señora.
Over the more the 20 years Ruddle has taught Spanish at the high school, students have dropped her last name when referring to her.
When asked who taught them Spanish, Ruddle said students often respond by saying “Señora taught me,” she said.
“Señora what? There are five Spanish teachers at LHS,” Ruddle said. “That’s just become like my first name.”
Earlier this year, Ruddle was notified that she was named High School Spanish Teacher of the Year by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Georgia Chapter.
She will be recognized in Augusta in March.
Since Ruddle is a native of Puerto Rico, she is a United States citizen with Spanish roots, teaching students by exposing them to popular Spanish songs, culture and literature.
“I grew up in Puerto Rico, and as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to become a teacher,” Ruddle said.
During her formative years, Ruddle said that she would help the teachers out in the classroom in an attempt to get an early jump on the skills she would need later in life.
“Teachers made a lot of difference in my life, and I became a teacher so I could do the same,” she said.
As a child and then as a student at the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, Ruddle’s dream was to teach Spanish in Puerto Rico.
That changed when she came as a missionary to the United States in 1981.
She served as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spent 18 months in the U.S. visiting with members and conducting lessons.
On her missionary trip, Ruddle first traveled to Utah, where she met her husband, Paul. She and Paul later moved to Valdosta to be close to friends in Kingsland and for Ruddle to finish her teaching degree at Valdosta State University.
The plan was to live in Valdosta for two years until Ruddle graduated from college.
“Twenty years later, I’m still here,” she said. “I graduated on a Saturday and started working here on a Monday.”
Though the way Ruddle teaches the language is different here in Georgia than it would be in Puerto Rico, her passion for the language remains.
“I often say, I’m not teaching Spanish. I’m teaching students,” she said. “All I can do is just kind of plant the seed. High school is just the beginning.”
She loves the interaction with the students, though she said she is well aware that not all of them will love the language. Connecting through another language allows a person to expose themselves to other parts of the world, she said.
“The world is a small place, and there are other people out there if they know the language that they can get to know,” Ruddle said. “It makes the world more interesting to them.”
Particularly in South Georgia, students don’t have to wait to test their Spanish language skills.
They can practice with a native speaker as soon as they leave the classroom and sometimes even while in the classroom, Ruddle said.
“The class where I have native speakers is usually very interesting because we can ask questions,” she said.
One such student recently explained to the class about the process of getting a “green card,” Ruddle said.
Ruddle does believe that foreign languages should be taught earlier in a person’s educational career.
“Small kids are not afraid. They are not afraid of speaking. They are more adventurous and will try to say things,” she said. “High schoolers are more reluctant because they are afraid that somebody is going to laugh and say the wrong thing.”
Though Ruddle is partial to Spanish, she believes that any language a student learns and falls in love with will only open the door to more languages and cultures.
“Language is just a set of rules, and what makes language interesting is the people that speak that language,” she said.
In Ruddle’s classes, she often discusses the cultural differences between the United States and Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, for example, people stand or sit close together when conversing, and if someone is invited to eat, a refusal is not acceptable, she said.
“It’s interesting to me because I see a lot of similarities between South Georgia and Puerto Rico,” Ruddle said.
People are still respectful to each other and polite, she said.
“Hospitality is very important,” she said.
Ruddle feels it is important to highlight the similarities of cultures.
“In the end, we are all people, and we are all in this together, and we must get along,” she said.
The key to learning another language is immersing oneself in it, by listening to music, watching television and practicing with native speakers, she said.
When Ruddle goes back to Puerto Rico during the summers, it serves as a time to see friends and family but also as an educational experience.
For the last three summers, she has been taking students and is currently in the process of planning another trip this summer.
The longest a trip has lasted was 14 days, and Ruddle said she usually takes no more than four students. They tour the island, visit the beach and visit with Ruddle’s mother.
“Most of my students’ favorite part of the trip is visiting my mom,” she said.
Their favorite meal of the trip is usually the food her mother prepares as well, Ruddle said.
Ruddle said her mother loves to have the students visit.
“She loves to see people eat,” Ruddle said.
Ruddle said her mother does not speak English and often relies on impromptu sign language to communicate with the students.
Ruddle has also traveled with students to Costa Rica but loves taking the students to Puerto Rico as it exposes them to the culture and people she discusses in class.
“They get to see that what I tell them is true,” she said. “They are not going to learn that much Spanish in 14 days, but they get to experience the culture firsthand. Just as important as learning the language is being exposed to different cultures.”
Though Ruddle has been honored this year and has been a teacher of the year for Lowndes High School before, she never feels that her job is completed.
“I feel like there is always something I could do better,” she said.
There are things that give her satisfaction though. When a student tells her they are going to a Spanish speaking country or still taking Spanish or plan to minor or major in Spanish in college, it is a great feeling, Ruddle said.
“Or even when they say, I was at Wendy’s last night, and I helped someone with their Spanish, or I translate at work,” she said.
A current student practices his Spanish at his job at a local supermarket when native speakers come in and need assistance, Ruddle said.
Ruddle and Paul have three children. The eldest son, Paul, is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia and is currently a missionary in Guatemala. Aaron recently returned from a missionary trip in Arizona and will start Valdosta State University in May, Ruddle said.
The youngest, Tara, is a 10th grader at LHS.
Ruddle’s husband is an English teacher at Valdosta Technical College.
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