Victoria Soto, 27, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., ushered her students into a closet, and in so doing placed her body between them and the assailant.
"She was found huddled over her children, her students, doing instinctively what she knew was the right thing," her cousin Jim Wiltsie tells ABC News.
"I'm just proud that Vicki had the instincts to protect her kids from harm," he continued. "It brings peace to know that Vicki was doing what she loved, protecting the children, and, in our eyes, she's a hero."
Soto was among the six adults, all women, killed in the Friday morning massacre that also took the lives of 20 children – 12 girls and eight boys. The gunman, identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, took his own life. His mother was also found killed in a different location.
"It doesn't surprise me at all she would do this," Sabeena Ali, the parent of a girl who was in Soto's class two years ago, tells PEOPLE.
Ali calls Soto a "vibrant woman who loved the kids and would be with the kids and spend time with them and sit on the floor with them."
Two years later, her daughter – now a third-grader – still idolized the teacher.
"Every day there was some new Miss Soto story we had to listen to: 'This is what she did, this is how wonderful she was today,'" says Ali. "She would bring in snacks for the kids and do special days."
Teaching was always what Victoria Soto had aspired to do, following in an aunt's footsteps, her sister Carlee Soto told the Today show on Sunday. Students "just brought a smile to her face, always," she said. "She would come home with stories of what the kids did that day and how they were progressing so well, and how they would just make her laugh."
At a memorial held Saturday night in Soto's hometown of Stratford, mourners wore green ribbons – her favorite color – while her family has been wearing green scarves to honor the young educator.
"She loved those students more than anything," Carlee Soto said, "and she didn't call them her students; she called them her kids."