Interview with Ruth Kauffmann
Professor of Spanish
GC Graduation Year
Why or how did you choose your field? Were there specific experiences that influenced you?
I loved the Spanish language. My aunt Miriam Kauffmann taught in Puerto Rico when I was a child. Though I had no idea where that was, it was fascinating to me that there were people who spoke another language. I didn’t have the opportunity to study Spanish until high school, and I continued to take Spanish classes at Goshen College. It was really the SST experience in Honduras in 1977 that gave me a passion for working with Spanish speaking people.
From college I went on to teach bilingual preschool to children of Mexican immigrants in a variety of settings for about ten years. In 1994 I began teaching college Spanish full time. I think the short answer to how I arrived where I am now is my passion for the Spanish language and the peoples who speak it.
What’s exciting about your job or this field?
I love working with college students. I believe the transition from high school to adult engagement is a critical time of life, and as a college professor, I have the opportunity to help shape my students’ attitudes towards the world. I use service learning to engage my language students in the communities of Spanish speakers around them. Right now, in Lake County, Illinois, we have a high percentage of immigrants, and the largest group is Spanish-speaking. There are many needs related to transitioning to life in a new country, and speaking Spanish is a tool to help connect us with immigrants.
What has been a challenge in your career journey?
I think teaching is a profession that is really very demanding. In order to do a good job, a teacher must be committed and willing to sacrifice her own comfort for the sake of educational goals. To be specific, my efforts to connect students with community require a lot of time and commitment. It’s easier to keep education within the walls of the classroom, but in the end that is much less satisfying. I find I always need to remind myself why I do what I do, so that I continue to make Spanish meaningful to my students and motivational for their lives beyond the classroom.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think so. I have a family I love, many relationships with a diverse group of people that have enriched my life, and experiences that have shaped who I am. I prefer to look forward and ask, what choices can I make now that will shape my future and help me contribute to making the world a better place? The important decisions are always the small ones we make each day as we reach out to those around us. I always hope that when I walk into the classroom I’m available to my students and that my presence is meeting their intellectual, spiritual and social needs as well as helping them to understand the world better.
How did your liberal arts education assist you in your journey? Are there specific examples you can offer?
I always look back to my years at GC, especially my study abroad experiences in Honduras and Spain, as fundamental to how I see the world. I’m sure I would not be where I am now in life without the GC experience. It’s important to have a liberal arts education, in my opinion, but the orientation to the world that GC presents is one of true citizenship – trying to make the world a better place.
Did anyone offer you some memorable advice that you’d like to pass on? Or…what advice would you give to a young person just starting out?
I remember talking to one of my grad school professors about teaching. I particularly admired her personable and caring approach to class, and she seemed so at ease in the classroom. I was surprised to hear her say that she’s always nervous before class starts. I’ll never forget what she said, “When you stop getting nervous about teaching you stop being a good teacher. Teaching well is never easy.” Her words have helped me many times as I continue to face challenges in teaching, and what I discovered is that, essentially, teaching is not about transmitting knowledge, it’s about relationships and building community. So now I see my task in the classroom as the leader of a community of learners. That’s why it’s never dull, even when I’m presenting the same material every semester. What interests me are the students and their desire to learn. So my advice to any teacher – never think it should be easy.