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Liz McPhee

The First Lady of Education | Middle Tennessee State University 

While most of Rutherford County know Liz McPhee as the first lady of Middle Tennessee State University, she is a powerful force for education on her own. Recently retired after teaching third grade for 40 years, she has not slowed down. She continues to work to see that young and old alike never stop learning.

Ironically, one of her first classroom experiences was not so pleasant. It happened when she entered third grade in Houston, Texas, part way through the school year, after having moved from Mississippi.

“I overheard my new teacher talking about me,” said McPhee. “She didn’t want a new mid-year student, especially one from Mississippi. Without even knowing me, she had set her mind to the thought that I was behind in my lessons, and that I was not going to succeed. She said that I was not going to amount to anything.”

The young McPhee took her teacher’s negative comments to heart and failed third grade, but at the same time, she vowed to herself that she was going to go to college and become a third grad teacher. Luckily, her parents moved her to a new school to complete third grade.

“After my failure, my mother told me that God had a plan for me,” said McPhee, “we just don’t know the plan, but that I needed to follow it. She said that He had revealed a small part of his plan for me – it was to go to school and get an education.”

At the second school, McPhee found a teacher who believed in her. She knew this teacher was part of God’s plan when the teacher almost repeated her mom’s words, adding that she was there to see that Liz became the best she could be.

“I got my education degree,” said McPhee, “and I became a third grade teacher. The principal at the first school where I taught was that teacher that helped me believe in myself. On my first day of class, I repeated to my class what she told me. She inspired me to do all that I could to give my students the best education possible.”

McPhee finds inspiration from both people who tear her down, and those that build her up. She trusts that it is all part of God’s plan. Cancer was also part of God’s plan for her. One day she was alone during a radiation treatment with just her thoughts and the hum of the machine.

Neither her husband, MTSU President Dr. Sydney McPhee, nor family or friends could be in the room with her; laying there, she looked to God to inspire her.

“If this is the end,” she said to Him, “then I accept. If it’s not, show me the way.”

Her faith kept her going, and like the energizer bunny, she hit the ground running once she was better, determined to continue to follow God’s plan for her.

MTSU is also part of that plan. She feels she could not do what she does without the strength of her husband and the university behind her, but she equally supports her husband’s activities as president of the university. She travels with him, as well as going to events and activities important to the continued growth of the school.

“People used to ask me how I was able to teach full-time,” said McPhee, “often being the first one to the school in the morning, and attend all of the dinners and late night meetings with Sydney. I’d say that’s just part of the plan.”

McPhee strongly believes in her husband’s plan, too. While her’s has been all about educating young children, she feels her husband’s plan is all about supporting the staff and faculty who are educating future business and community leaders.

While she’s not exactly sure what retired life has in store, she knows that part of the plan is to continue to educate. She has worked extensively with visiting Chinese teachers and students through some of the programs that MTSU has initiated and grown over the years, and those of Murfreesboro city schools where she taught.

Currently, she sits on the Murfreesboro City School Foundation Board, which raises money to allow teachers the opportunity to do special projects in the classroom without dipping into their own pockets.

One of the first people she met when she came to MTSU was the late Mary Scales. Scales talked her into becoming a member of the AKA Sorority, where she currently sits on one of their national committees. She is working to fulfill the sorority’s goals to inspire historically black universities, enhance women’s healthcare, build an economic legacy, expose people to arts and culture, and have global impact.

In her free time, she volunteers with numerous organizations including the MLK Scholarship Board, and a new one called Advance Rutherford. Advance Rutherford is dedicated “to ensuring the success of women and girls at school, in the community, and in the workplace.”

For a young girl who was told that she wasn’t going to amount to much, McPhee has quite a list of accomplishments. “Not too long after I graduated from college, I went back to an event at the school where the teacher believed I wouldn’t amount to anything,” said McPhee. “I thought about telling her how she made me feel, but I didn’t. In her own way, she was one of my greatest inspirations. I walked up to her and told her that she was the reason I went to college and became a third grade teacher. She gave me a hug and told me that she was glad, that was what teachers were meant to do.”

You see, Liz McPhee strongly believes that we can never appreciate the good in our lives if we don’t experience the bad, too. “I am,” she said with a smile, “truly blessed. “

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