By Martie Thompson

Born in Bogota, Columbia, Claudia Smith is now a Spanish teacher and L.E.E. instructor at Cunningham Creek Elementary, Freedom Crossing Academy, and Julington Creek Elementary who was recently named Florida Foreign Language Association’s 2023 Teacher of Promise. The Florida Foreign Language Association’s vision is for a linguistically and culturally inclusive Florida and L.E.E., which provides Spanish language instruction in St. Johns County elementary schools, is a member of the association.

Smith’s passion for her native language and culture is strong. She delights in teaching others and serving her community.

“I am honored to be recognized by FFLA and the local program,” Smith said. “My enthusiasm about teaching Spanish, which is my native language, helps me to instruct primarily English-speaking children as they engage in learning a second language. I am dedicated to training, teaching, practicing, and developing the best learning techniques to help young people become fluent in foreign languages.”

Smith lives in St. Johns with her husband, Taryn Karl.

Q: What was it like growing up in Bogota?
A: I grew up in a family that loved reading and learning. Bogota is known as the “Athens of South America” because of all the culture and arts in the city. Throughout my childhood, I was cultivated to learn and speak with the best pronunciation of the Spanish language. I earned my university degree in logistics and was already working in international business by the time I came to the United States.

Q: How and why did you come to the United States?
A: I really wanted to improve the level of my English. I moved to Miami and took continuing education classes at the University of Miami. Then I moved to Gainesville to work for Santa Fe Community College before I moved to Jacksonville in 2001. I felt I needed to be near the ocean to most fully utilize my experience in international business. I feel that when you want something you pray about it and God opens doors. My first job in Jacksonville was with Beaver Street Fishery, where they had an international department, but no one spoke Spanish! For a time I did volunteer work as a translator for a Latin magazine because when you have a passion for something, I feel you should help your community. Next I worked at Crowley, where I traveled to El Salvador to train people and make sure the company’s customer service was up to plan.

Q: How did you meet your husband?
A: I met my husband, known as TK, in 2015 when I was attending a Latin church and teaching a Spanish class. He was confused that I was Latin, but didn’t love to party at nightclubs. I told him that instead, I loved barbecue food and country music! We were married in 2016.

Q: How did you come to work with L.E.E.?
A: I had experience teaching Spanish lessons. When I first lived in St. Johns County, a family I knew asked if I could teach their son Spanish, so that’s when I started giving lessons one-on-one. I started working with L.E.E. in 2021 after interviewing in both Spanish and English with Donna Guzzo. I had retired from my job in 2019 and dedicated my life to service to the community and teaching Spanish. 

Q: What’s your favorite part of teaching children Spanish?
A: I feel a passion for Spanish and I really love teaching it to others. My favorite part is when, every week when parents pick up their children from my class, the children love to share everything they learned. It shows that they love what they are learning and it shows the importance of learning another language.

Photo courtesy L.E.E.

Claudia Smith

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