ZEPHYRHILLS — Tiffanie Hughes, 33, married and had children at a young age.
Her first priority was to be a mother, but when her kids were old enough, she pursued her professional passion: teaching.
Hughes went to Saint Leo University and graduated in 2014 with a teaching degree. A year later, Woodland Elementary School offered her a position teaching first grade.
She decorated her classroom with art from her favorite children's book, Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
"Teaching was her life," said Christina Hellwig, a fourth-grade teacher at the school. "Not everybody can be a teacher. She was born to do it, she was born to make a difference."
Hughes, of Winter Haven, died in a two-vehicle collision Monday afternoon on State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel, just four weeks before she was to return to Woodland Elementary for her second year as an educator. Her son, Lane, 11, and one of his friends were in the back seat and suffered serious injuries.
The Florida Highway Patrol report said Hughes' 2016 Toyota 4Runner sport utility vehicle crossed the center line and crashed headfirst into another vehicle. Its occupants were not taken to the hospital, the report said.
Hughes had plans to return to school to seek a master's in elementary education, Hellwig said.
"But in her first year, she wanted to focus on her classroom and her students," Hellwig said. "That's what she did."
When Hughes came to Woodland, she immediately fit right in, said first-grade teacher Christel Phelps. Hughes brought fresh, new ideas and had a professionalism that was "beyond that of a first-year teacher," Phelps said.
"Throughout the year, Tiffanie became a real part of the Woodland family, and especially to our first-grade team," Phelps said in an email. "It wasn't long before I considered her a friend as well as a co-worker."
Phelps served as Hughes' professional mentor. The pair had big plans for the coming school year, Phelps said, and were excited to keep working together.
"Tiffanie was a beautiful person inside and out," Phelps said.
Antonia Astone has been teaching for 20 years and also wrapped up her first year teaching first grade at Woodland. Hughes taught one hallway down from Astone.
She remembered Hughes' creativity and her beautiful classroom.
Hughes decorated her first classroom at Woodland with bright, colorful artwork. She was very organized, sweet and good-natured, and the students loved her, Astone said.
"Tiffanie is certainly one of the best amongst us," she said.
Hellwig said Hughes made a big splash at the school, even in just a single year teaching there.
"Everything Woodland stands for, that's Tiffanie," she said. "She was her classroom."
Hughes is survived by her husband, Dallas, a Polk County Sheriff's deputy, and their two sons, Lane and Gunner.
Contact Hannah Alani at [email protected] or (813) 909-4617. Follow @hannahalani.