When You Need a Hero, Call a Teacher

by Teresa Crane | Thursday, Jun 14, 2018

When Elizabeth Smith graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in June of 2008 she decided she was ready to go away to college. She chose the University of Central Florida. Like many students, being away from home for the first time presented far too many challenges and soon she was back home working in a variety of jobs.

One morning in 2015 Elizabeth woke up and said, “I can’t do this anymore. My daughter, Nina, doesn’t deserve this life. I am so much better than this.” Elizabeth drove to Palm Beach State College and patiently waited for an advisor. The next day she registered for three classes.

As she regained academic confidence, she looked to Florida Atlantic University. Elizabeth remembers, “I will never forget the very first time I drove up to FAU for classes. I was so nervous because I had failed before and now I was ‘old’ with a baby. I’d finally realized that school was more than just a place to have fun.”  

Elizabeth researched the Exceptional Student Education teacher preparation program and learned each step of what was needed to be successful and to graduate. FAU became a place of true learning for Elizabeth. She worked as hard as she could in each class while holding down a full-time job, being a mother, and keeping a home with her fiancé. She passed every state certification exam and was excited as her Student Teaching experience approached signaling the end of her degree program.

Elizabeth recalled that it was a Sunday evening when she received a call from ESE instructor Lawrence Heiser asking if she wished to student teach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “I almost wanted to say no because as good of a student as I was I did not enjoy high school. But, I just couldn’t say no to him. Going back to the halls where I spent three years scared me because I did not know what my former teachers would think of me or how the students would react to me. I did it though. Each moment spent at MSD solidified that I was making the best decision for me and my family.”

Lisa Finnegan, ESE professor, describes Elizabeth’s reaction. “I remember Elizabeth being excited and nervous in the fall semester when she learned she was going to be placed at MSD. It was the high school she attended. She was wondering what it would be like to complete her internship having been a student there and what her previous teachers might say. Once she was there, she was so excited; she wanted to share the placement that she felt she ‘was lucky to be a part of.’” 

Then tragedy struck. “I will never forget February 14, 2018,” said Elizabeth, “I was sending my kids home for the day. We were laughing and happy. Only moments later we found out the terror that occurred. I had to rush my students into the principal’s conference room and put my emotions away. That experience taught me I am so much stronger than I would have ever thought. It also taught me I am EXACTLY where I belong.”

Finnegan recalled that Elizabeth was eager to assist students and MSD faculty and staff transition back to school. “It was not only important to her as a student teacher, but it was important to her because it was her high school.  Elizabeth was interviewed by a local news station and mentioned the depth of those sentiments.”

Following the shooting, a core group of ESE faculty at FAU met with Elizabeth to debrief and provide support. Faculty and the Student Teaching supervisor have kept in contact with her, as well. Elizabeth shared her experiences and reactions to the shooting at MSD and decided to continue the tradition of teachers who do all they can to support their students. Elizabeth has now completed both Student Teaching and a bachelor’s degree. The ESE department is pleased to note that Elizabeth has accepted an ESE teaching position at Deerfield Beach Elementary School. 

Elizabeth, and the many other brave, dedicated teachers and student teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have taught everyone a valuable lesson: When you need a hero, call a teacher!