With Cuban quilts, Spanish motivational posters, and a desk packed with white paper all around, Spanish teacher Sra. Suzanne Planas’ room is filled with a sense of culture, creativity, and love. Since youth, she’s had a desire for a career in the field of education.
Before beginning the interview, I asked Sra. Planas if she would mind doing the interview in Spanish and a smile instantly appeared followed by a “si, maravilloso.”
“Cómo empezó a enseñar? Cómo supo que esto iba a ser su profesión?” I asked.
“Sabes que, yo creo que empecé a enseñar antes de que [verdaderamente] empezar a enseñar, si eso tiene sentido.”
Sra. Planas said that she feels that she started her teaching career before she started teaching professionally.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in South Jersey, about 60 miles to the beach, also known as “the shore,” Sra. Planas was 13 years old when she took her first footsteps in the career of education by teaching swimming lessons. Instantly, sparks flew as she was intrigued by being able to witness how people learned and how she changed with every student.
“I always knew I was going to be a teacher since I was young, but I just didn’t know what type. I feel like I was born with that aspiration,” she said.
This led her to become a coach for a competitive swim team in the Tri-County Swim Association in New Jersey, as well as for the Jersey Wahoos during the winter. Her love for teaching has provided her with the chance to be insightful, curious, and loving. When asked what her biggest accomplishment in life was, her answer was simple.
“Esto va ser un poco cursi, un poco cheesy, pero ser una buena persona,” or “being a good person,” she said. “Treating people with respect, be forever loving, forgive where I have to forgive and to keep learning.”
Sra. Planas grew up with six siblings three brothers and three sisters. When asked what it was like living surrounded by so many siblings, she explained there was always a lot of movement in the house and that her parents had high expectations for all seven children. However, there was no favoritism and unity was key. They were all part of a swim team. Sra. Planas was a butterflier, swam the individual medley, and was a diver mainly because no one else in her age group on her team would do it. Additionally, they would go to church as a family every weekend.
“One thing [my parents] always said, which I loved, was that there were no gender lines. My mom raised us to do what needed to be done. The guys need to learn to wash the dishes, to iron, and wash clothes as the girls of the house had to learn to take out the trash and cut the fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Thanks to the sense of independence given by her parents’ parenting style, all of her siblings had different dreams, aspirations, and currently work in different fields. They also all learned to manage money in a responsible way at a young age, too, in light of the fact that asking for certain items they wanted was not allowed. They had to work for their own money in order to acquire them.
“My mom was super strict. She had to be since there was seven of us, but she hoped a lot for us and she supported us. She also gave us independence,” Sra. Planas said. “She wanted us to have our own path because she was not given the same opportunities since she was born in a time where women were given very few options: either being a teacher, nurse, or a housewife.”
In the midst of exploring, Sra. Planas walked into the world of Spanish when she was 14 years old with the help of a teacher named Jesus Ortazo. He had a significant role in Sra. Planas’ life and he taught her everything she needed to know about the language.
During her high school years, she was also part of an exchange programs similar to the one at Mason. She was able to travel to Bilbao City in Northern Spain, Valencia in Eastern Spain, and the cities of Santiago, Valparaíso and Isla Negra in Chile. From there, she continued her love for the Spanish language at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I was able to, through this exchange program, learn a lot about the culture. Not just the basics [of Spanish] such as literature and grammar, but how the people lived,” Sra. Planas said.
She also went to Venezuela for her honeymoon as well as France for vacation and China for the Fulbright-Hays Program, an American scholarship program of competitive, merit-based grants for international educational exchange for students, scholars and teachers. It is considered to be one of the most widely recognized and prestigious scholarships in the world. Travel expanded her interest in culture. She met her husband, a Cuban named Ramón Planas, in Governor’s School Spanish class, which Sra. Planas taught as a founding teacher alongside Ramón for 13 summers.
“My husband’s friends sometimes call me ‘la Cuban wannabe’… I still have that Spanish vibe at home and my children know Spanish,” said Sra. Planas. “Since without it, they wouldn’t have been able to communicate with their grandparents and enjoy all the wonderful things in Miami.”
When Planas is not travelling, she said, she is “mentally travelling” while teaching. As she teaches about other Spanish countries and their cultures, she feels as if she were there experiencing it all.
In order to continue exploring culture, Sra. Planas is preparing to do El Camino de Santiago, (The Way of Saint James) in about a year, which is a pilgrimage or journey that begins in St. Jean Pied de Port in France and goes to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. It would be 50 days of walking about 10 to 15 miles a day during hot sunny days and resting during the cool nights. She would have to begin during the summertime and prepare for it beforehand.
“I am trying to be emotionally, physically, and spiritually strong before the long walk. This has always been my goal and I really want to make this dream come true,” Sra. Planas said.
Additionally, she has an immense fascination for gastronomy and cooking due to it being intertwined with Spanish culture and believes that it is a great way to learn about traditions as well as geography. She currently has a secret guilty pleasure: her favorite cooking show called “La Ruta Capone”. It’s a program broadcasted on RTVE, Radio y Televisión Española from Spain, about an Italian chef who travels to different towns learning about the food they eat and how it is made.
“To me there is nothing better than a big table of very lovely people, sitting there for hours enjoying the food, stories, and conversation. It is a time to learn a lot,” said Sra. Planas.
“¿Si usted se podría describir como un objeto, qué objeto sería?”
I asked Sra. Planas what object she would use to describe herself and she could do nothing but immediately laugh.
“Oh my gosh! …Una columna que alguien podría poner encima de mí el peso y yo lo voy a aguantar. I’ll be strong cómo una columna. Yo iba a decir un escritoria pero columna es más gruesas,” she said.
As I was asking my next question she interrupted.
“Un rollerskate. I would like to be a roller skate. Un patine para viajar, olvidate de la columna. Patinar de un lugar a otro más rápido,” Sra. Planas said, switching indecisively between a column and roller skates.
Sra. Planas is a strong person with the capability to always take on more things. This has been seen through her position as a Spanish Department Head, being fully invested in the IB program, traveling, learning about culture through hobbies, and sharing that knowledge with others.
“She is the most caring woman on the planet,” said sophomore Kaia Ellis, a student of Sra. Planas. “When you are sick she gives you tea. She loves teaching and has so much passion for Spanish that radiates from every part of her body and she genuinely wants her students to understand the material, which is something not found in a lot of teachers.”
After diving into the field of education, Sra. Planas has been sitting at a Spanish teacher’s desk for 15 years, teaching students about a rich language with the help of her experience with culture. Sra. Planas continues to grow as a student for life through her independence and curiosity for more.
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