Denise Soufrine sneaked into her kindergarten classroom as soon as her principal allowed it, days before the calendar mandated last week’s return of teachers.
Wearing a red T-shirt that read “Believe there is good” and mostly standing on her feet — one bandaged due to an old injury — she worked for days. She pasted numbers onto her Dr. Seuss calendar, organized a large purple bin filled with yarn that someone on Facebook had donated. She secured a strip of blue painter’s tape on the floor in front of the door so her 5-year-olds grasp how to stand in a line.
“I’m so excited,” she said, clapping her hands against her chest. “I can’t wait to meet them.”
After 34 years with Broward County Public Schools, Soufrine still lights up when talking about the first day of school at Pembroke Pines Elementary, where she has taught for 11 years.
But she acknowledges the past four years have been the most taxing in her career, even more than when she took on three or more jobs to pay her bills in her early years. Anxiety over school shootings, remote learning, understaffing and newly passed laws in Florida that restrict what teachers can teach have made teaching that much more stressful.
Active shooting training
For the past three years, Soufrine, 59, has undergone active shooting training. She’s learned how to stop a bleed on an injured person and how to tell her kids to “hide in case a bad person comes.” Some of her students laugh and think it’s a game during those monthly code red drills; she calls them out. She explains it’s never happened in their own school but it could, and they need to be ready. Some cry.
“MSD changed everything,” she said, referring to the 2018 Valentine’s Day shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where Nikolas Cruz, then 19, opened fire, killing 14 students and three faculty members in the deadliest shooting at a U.S. high school.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October. A jury, hearing testimony over the past few weeks, will decide whether the former Stoneman Douglas student should be sentenced to death or face life imprisonment with no parole.
In addition to school safety issues, Soufrine has contended with teaching amid the pandemic. For the first year or so, she read stories to her students through a computer screen, instead of looking down from her brown rocking chair as they snuggled on her ABC mat.
In August 2021 — 18 months after the pandemic led Miami-Dade and Broward schools to pivot to remote teaching in March 2020 — she shifted back to in-person classes. Bottles of sanitizer along with a box of tissues appeared on each set of grouped tables. Every student got a laptop. She started scolding them for holding hands.
At that point, she left voluntary pre-kindergarten, a program that prepares children for kindergarten, and moved up to kindergarten so she could be with the same students in a classroom, after teaching them virtually for a year.
“I didn’t get a chance to do some of the activities in person, and I really felt that I was missing out; I felt like I didn’t get to have as close of a relationship with them,” she said. The second year, she built the connections; she saw some of the kids get new siblings and pets.
Florida’s new education laws
Then came the Florida Legislature’s wave of education bills passed in the spring, most notably House Bill 1557, called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, but which critics have assailed as the “Don’t say gay” bill.
The bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the end of March, bars K-3 lesson plans that discuss sexual orientation or gender identity, although student-led discussions in the classroom are allowed. The bill is ambiguous over whether this would affect teachers in fourth grade and higher. Some Miami-Dade parents cited the bill when they petitioned the Miami-Dade School Board to ban a health and sexual-education textbook for middle and high school students, claiming it was not age appropriate. The School Board initially sided with the parents before reversing itself at the end of July.
Said Soufrine about the new law: “It really doesn’t change my perspective at all.”
Standing up for her beliefs
On Monday, when her students and their parents come in for a meet-and-greet a day before classes begin, they will find the usual books leaning against the bottom ledge of her white board, all about different types of families. And come Tuesday, the first day of classes for the district, she will start reading the titles to the kids.
“The books in the classroom really show the diverse population in society,” she said. “They show that a gay person is like any other person, and that everyone needs to be treated with dignity and respect.”
She and her colleagues have never taught kids about gender studies, she said. And she has not mentioned the word “gay” to her students, either in classroom lessons or in discussing her sexual identity as a gay woman, she said. Instead, she teaches about values.
If a parent dislikes any of her books, many handed out by the school district itself, she said, they can file a complaint with the district’s leadership — a right they’ve always had. She said she doesn’t anticipate any trouble.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
For the past five years, ever since the program started, she has served as an equity liaison for her school and has received training from the district about diversity and inclusion.
“If I’m reading a book in my classroom, and it’s called, ‘All Kinds of Families,’ and I’m reading a story to the kids and it says, ‘A family could have a mom and a dad, or two moms, or two dads,’ I’m not afraid to read that kind of book. I feel like the district will back me up,” Soufrine said. “I’m not afraid of continuing to teach what I teach.”
Soufrine could have retired four years ago, but chose not to.
“I love teaching too much,” she said. “The kids are adorable. At that age, they’re like little sponges. It’s just noticeable how much they learn. They come in not knowing the letters of the alphabet and they leave reading. It’s really rewarding.”
Her long journey, principal support
Soufrine put in a lot of time, effort and studies to get to where she is.
She worked as a substitute, a candy shop maker, a tutor and a receptionist at a hair salon while getting her degree and in her early teaching days. It took her seven years to get her bachelor’s as she juggled jobs with school, starting first at then-Broward Community College, then graduating from Florida Atlantic University. She earned a master’s in library science at Florida State University and her doctorate in education and curriculum from Nova Southeastern University.
She credits her resilience, in large part, to her principal, Natasha Bell.
Bell left her assistant principal position at Parkway Middle in Fort Lauderdale and joined Pembroke Pines Elementary as support in the last quarter in 2018, after the Parkland shooting. April Schentrup, then the principal at Pines Elementary, lost her 16-year-old daughter, Carmen, in the shooting and didn’t return after the year ended. Bell became principal.
Bell sees her role as supporting her team of teachers.
“I’m here first and foremost for them,” she said. “If they come to work happy and if they come knowing they’re coming to a place where they are loved, they’re going to want to come to work.
“We’re here for the kids — we’re here to teach them and provide for them, yes — but we can’t do that if we don’t take care of our teachers first.”
The Jamaican native said she builds her messaging around the words “One Love,” a popular song by the late Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae star, and Curtis Mayfield. She often ends her weekly newsletter with that phrase.
“We have to come here and everybody needs to feel loved and valued and respected. Once we have the right environment, we can deal with everything,” she said. “And Dr. Soufrine does contribute to that in a great deal. Dr. Soufrine is always a bright light.”
Her classroom corner
Past the school office board welcoming the children onto the Pirates campus, and down a few halls, one decorated with two rainbow flags and a peace sign adorning both, lies Soufrine’s classroom. Inside her colorful four walls, she dotes on one corner, the closest to her desk — “Dr. Soufrine’s Corner.”
There, she keeps her precious memorabilia, including a screenshot of a Facebook post a former student tagged her in about 15 years ago.
“I remember vividly starting my school year just after Hurricane Andrew [in 1992]. We learned so much about hurricanes and hurricane safety with you,” the student’s post reads. “You are a special soul!”
She has pinned lots of photos, including one of one of her first classes when she taught fourth grade at Sterling Elementary in Hollywood. As she slides her finger down the kids’ faces, naming nearly all of them by first and last name, she points out some of their careers as adults: “She’s now a breast surgeon for the University of Miami,” she said of one of the little girls.
She has photos of her father volunteering at her school; she smiles at a snapshot of him dressed as Scooby-Doo. And photos of her colleagues and her at a comedy show, at birthday celebrations.
If she needs a break, she turns to her corner. There she’s reminded of why she teaches.
She’s also reminded of those who lift her up.
“The kids keep me going,” she said. “I get angry sometimes. But I have a really good support system; I try to be around other people that are optimistic.”