-by S. Woodward
This is the fourth article in a series of profiles about each finalist for Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ 2022 Citywide Teacher of the Year. The citywide winner will be announced later this spring.
Heather Riggs is an English as a second language (ESL) instructor at the Adult Learning Center and an adjunct ESL professor at Tidewater Community College.
Before she graduated from Harding University, Riggs studied Spanish, French, and Koine Greek, lived in Chile and taught in Bolivia. By the time she started work for Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS), she had served two years in the Peace Corps, lived in the Philippines and became so fluent in the Visayan language that strangers who heard her speak thought she was Filipina. After working part-time at the ALC and tutoring elementary school students, Riggs moved to South Korea, where she taught at Woosong University in Daejeon.
It was two years later, in 2016, than Riggs got her “dream job,” working full time at the ALC as an ESL instructor.
“I love my job as an adult educator,” Riggs wrote in her Teacher of the Year application. “I chose teaching as my profession because I am passionate about learning, making connections and helping people. I get the opportunity to watch my students grow as they gain confidence with their English, feel more connected as they form relationships, and improve their skills and knowledge to help them use English in the United States.”
Now five years into her role with VBCPS, Riggs works to develop curriculum, implement new testing strategies and resources, and help new teachers adapt to their roles. She also strives to make all students feel welcome and comfortable in the classroom.
“Mrs. Riggs created a learning environment that is safe and inclusive,” says Joey Phillips, Ph.D., director of the ALC. “Her classroom has the feel of community, yet, she approaches each student as a unique individual.”
Riggs teaches a class on identity and tolerance and believes it to be one of the most challenging and rewarding units of her curriculum. “It forces our entire class (teacher, teacher assistants and students) to come to terms with their own biases and beliefs and to have respectful and constructive discussions about them with each other,” she explains. “This unit defines me as a teacher because it emphasizes the importance of introspection, acceptance and flexibility.”
She maintains relationships with her former students, helping them apply for refugee status, find a job or pass their citizenship test.
2022 “One of the best qualities Mrs. Riggs exemplifies is her dynamic, powerful and nurturing relationship with her students,” wrote Natasha Christian, academic coordinator, in her recommendation to the Teacher of the Year committee. “It is this ability to connect wholistically with her student body and the implementation of successful Social Emotional Learning strategies that enables Mrs. Riggs’ class to thrive beyond measure and allows our ELA (English language acquisition) to be one of the primer programs in the state.”