During an annual service rally Thursday where she welcomed teachers and staff to their first day of the 2013-14 school year, Seneca Valley Superintendent Dr. Tracy Vitale spoke of heroic teachers in the news.
There was the teacher in Georgia who talked down an armed man inside her school, the educators in Oklahoma who used their own bodies to shield students from a devastating tornado, and of course, there were the staff members determined to protect students from an armed shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Vitale finished up by showing a video clip of one of those heroes, Kaitlin Roig, during an interview with Diane Sawyer.
A first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook, Roig locked herself and her 15 students in a tiny 3 feet by 4 feet bathroom Dec. 14 as a gunman went on a murderous rampage in the school, killing 20 children and six staff members.
Barricaded in the windowless room, Roig and her tiny charges survived the massacre.
Vitale said any Seneca Valley teacher would do the same for their students.
“I believe this room is filled with staff members just like Kaitlin,” Vitale said.
Then, she surprised the staff by bringing Roig out to speak to them.
Now 29, Roig, who was just married Friday and flew directly from her honeymoon to speak at Seneca Valley, is taking a year’s sabbatical from her teaching job to share her story with others and to spread a message of hope.
“You can always choose to have hope,” she told the teachers filling the auditorium at the intermediate high school. “”We can each choose to have hope.”
Roig recounted cramming herself in the single-toilet bathroom with her students and urging them to keep quiet as shots rang out around them.
Certain she would not survive the day, and thinking of her fiancé, Roig turned to her students and told each one how much she loved them, in case that were the last words they would hear.
Heartbreakingly, many of the students offered to lead them from danger, with one first-grader saying he could use his karate skills on the bad guy.
“I told them once again we were waiting for the good guys to come and get us,” Roig said.
Roig said she and the students spent 45 minutes in the bathroom, but it felt more like days. Even after police came to liberate them, Roig refused to come out until after the officers slid their badges under the locked door to prove their identity.
“I still could not believe someone good had come to get us after all the bad that had happened,” she said.
For weeks after the shooting, Roig said she feared being in public and could not be alone, carting her now husband, Nick DeBelia, with her everyone.
Things changed once Roig returned to the classroom in January and—determined to move forward from that horrific day—founded the nonprofit Classes4Classes.
Open to students in kindergarten through fifth grade, the organization encourages students to engage in social curriculum projects that classes sponsor for other classes.
After the shooting, Roig noted she and her students were overwhelmed by the messages of support, encouragement and gifts from people around the world.
Immediately, her own first-graders began lobbying her for ways they could give back to others, giving her the idea to start Classes4Classes.
“Giving always makes us feel better,” Roig said. “I thought that if, after this event, we’re going to chose love, hope, consideration, passion and empathy, which I so thought we should, then this was what I needed to teach my students.”
Roig said she is excited to spend the next year speaking about Classes4Classes. Seneca Valley, which used donations to bring her to the school, is the third school she has shared her story with, and she has plan to visit many other districts.
Come fall 2014 though, Roig said she would be back in the classroom. She has no plans to leave her profession.
“Teaching is a gift,” she said.