‘No excuses. I’m still here.’

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Every hour and a half on every treatment day, Teresa Murphy heard the beeps, the sound of more chemo entering her body.

In the beginning, the FIU alumna and 4th grade teacher took those treatment days off from work. She cried. She couldn’t walk. She would say she was never doing chemo again. But she kept going.

Murphy, who teaches at Spanish Lake Elementary, was diagnosed with breast cancer in August — a time when she was preparing for the start of a new school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Treatments began almost immediately, but she didn’t tell her students or their parents about her diagnosis. Families were dealing with their own stresses — illness, job losses, isolation, economic insecurity and the mental strain all caused by the pandemic. She decided the kids didn’t need to hear their teacher had cancer. So she kept it to herself, quietly taking a day off here and there from her remote classroom to receive chemo.

Teresa in the treatment room

After the first four sessions — the harshest of the entire treatment — she realized the chemo room could become her classroom. All she needed was a Snapchat filter to disguise her surroundings and the treatment team to stay out of camera view so they didn’t give away her secret.

“It doesn’t matter if you fussed at your kids, argued with your husband or couldn’t pay the bills. You have this responsibility to sing and dance and put on a show,” the mother of two said about teachers. “That’s what we do. That helped me.”

Murphy originally wanted to become an attorney. She was going to become a teacher to pay her way through law school. Things changed.

While in an introductory to education course at Miami-Dade College, Professor Howard Eliason told a profound story that stayed with Murphy. A parent brought their child to the emergency room because the child’s hands were purple after being tied up for too long due to punishment. The child’s hands were amputated. The words that stuck with her were the words of the child when he woke up, “I promise I won’t do it again if I can have my hands back.”   

From then on, Murphy realized an educator’s job wasn’t just to teach the children but to work with families, too. She believes learning to be a good human is as essential, if not more, than reading, writing and arithmetic.

In January, as the treatments were starting to show in her appearance, Murphy decided it was time to tell her students that she had cancer. They responded to her in the same way she treats them — with patience and kindness.

“I saw a difference just in January with some students that I was struggling to reach,” she said.

Recently, she was going from radiation to chemo and wasn’t going to make it in time to teach her class. Not even Miami traffic stops this Teacher of the Year. She pulled up into the parking lot, turned on her hotspot and threw her green screen material over the back seat.

The kids asked, “Mrs. Murphy, are you in the car?” She replied, “I tried, guys. No excuses. I’m still here.”

On the days she doesn’t feel or look her best, there’s that one student who tells Murphy she’s always beautiful. Parents tell their children they need to log into class for Mrs. Murphy. She continues to give her students a sense of normalcy at a time when life is anything but normal — especially for her.

She maintains a vision board. At the center are her students’ names. They give her focus. They help keep her going.

Photo courtesy Jose A. Iglesias (Miami Herald)

Earlier this year, Murphy was recognized for her tireless commitment to her students, and named Miami-Dade County Public School’s Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year. She adds that to a long list of accomplishments and awards she’s earned over the years.

The past year has been one of incredible unpredictability for Murphy, but she continues to persevere through it all. Her oncologist even asked if she’d be willing to do some patient advocacy. Her latest goal — find a way to work with children fighting cancer because she doesn’t know how any child does it.

“I see it as an adult where I can talk through my feelings and my emotions because I have all my coping mechanisms,” Murphy said. “It’s definitely something I want to look into as I have a little more time when this darn chemo is finished.”