Location: Palm Coast, FL
Heather Cribbs was slated to be the editor in chief of her Ocoee, Florida high school newspaper. She planned to become a journalist because, as she says, she “wanted to bring light to things and make a difference in people’s lives.” But just before her senior year of high school, the school newspaper was cut due to budget cuts and Heather had to switch gears. She was active in theatre and loved how much theatre had given her a home in high school. It clicked for her that teaching theatre would also allow her to meet her goals.
With teaching as her new goal, Heather attended Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida and graduated in 2013 with a double major in theatre arts and secondary education with a focus on drama. Teaching jobs were scarce because she was very specific about what she wanted to teach. “I was not interested in teaching small kids,” she says. “I only wanted to teach high school students. And I only wanted to teach drama.” Most high schools only have one threatre teacher and there isn’t much transience among them; once in place, they tend to stay put. So Heather worked as a cake decorator for a Publix grocery store until the right position came along.
In the summer of 2015, Heather compromised a bit and took a teaching position at a middle school teaching seventh grade reading. She also became involved in the school’s drama club. But when the nearby high school had an opening for a theatre teacher in the summer of 2016, Heather jumped at the chance. She interviewed on her birthday and was offered the spot shortly thereafter. This year was Heather’s fourth year as New Smyrna Beach High School’s theatre director. She teaches six classes each day ranging from Theatre 1 (that attracts a lot of students who are new to theatre) all the way up to Advanced Acting (Theatre 4) and a technical theatre class. She also oversees two mainstage productions each year, a senior conservatory (when seniors direct one act plays) and her school’s participation in the Florida’s State Thespian Festival.
Heather finds great satisfaction in fostering a sense of appreciation for theatre in her students, and she is proud of the work they showcase on stage. “The joy of live theatre is that it is a new experience every time,” Heather says. “When the lights dim or when I watch the kids live and breathe a piece of theatre, it is so rewarding.” But it is what happens during rehearsals, and in her classroom, that Heather finds the most impactful about her job.
“Theatre gave me a home and a family of fellow misfits,” Heather says of her own high school theatre experience. “I was loud and boisterous and kind of weird.” She sees her classroom as a haven for students who are sometimes unable to be their authentic selves anywhere else. “I
try to provide them with an environment where they can be unapologetically themselves,” Heather says. “Where they can question, try out, and accept or turn down different aspects of their lives.” She is particularly sensitive to the need to provide a safe place for her students who are not able to be themselves anywhere else, students whose genders or chosen names and pronouns are not recognized at home or in other classes. “I let kids who have to act a certain way at home or go by a certain name be who they want to be in my classroom,” Heather says. “As long as it does not impede anyone else’s right to be.”
With tragically high suicide rates for nonbinary and transgender kids who are not accepted, Heather knows that giving them the space to express themselves is essential. “Just calling them by their name or using the right pronoun can save their life,” Heather says. She is often told as much by students who thank her for helping them feel whole. One of her current seniors identified as a female when they started high school the same year that Heather began teaching there. The student came out as nonbinary and asexual in their junior year and they credit Heather with helping them feel accepted and able to become the person they are today.
It is in this sense that Heather knows she is doing exactly what she needs to be doing. She makes me appreciate all of the teachers who are out there doing what needs doing, serving as that guide, inspiration and support system for students who might not be getting any of that anywhere else. Let’s hear it for the teachers! I appreciate you!