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For York High School theater teacher Amy Insley, it’s about the students.
Insley, who recently received the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, is the first to admit that award and any others are a tribute to her students.
Insley was nominated for the award by two former students, Meaghan Witten and Justin Rivera.
“That one is above all other awards,” Insley said. “To be nominated by former students is meaningful. There’s something about knowing the difference you’ve made with someone you’ve worked with that closely.”
Rivera wrote in his nomination essay about when he was a nervous and unsure sophomore at Bruton High School who had just moved to Williamsburg from New York.
“She knew I needed something to hold onto, and she gave it to me so freely,” Rivera wrote about meeting Insley, who invited him to fall auditions that year.
Insley, 41, grew up in Poquoson and has taught in York County for 10 years, seven at York.
Her passion for theater started early as she became involved in theater in high school, inspired by her teacher Sandy Katz, with whom she still stays in touch today.
While studying theater and English at Virginia Wesleyan College, she received a great opportunity to go to London to work at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Instead of focusing primarily on acting, she had to teach as well at the Globe.
“That’s kind of where it found me,” Insley said of teaching. “The path opened itself, and I’ve never turned away from it because it was what I was meant to do.”
Insley also has a master’s degree in theater direction from the Chicago College of Performing Arts and is working on a Master of Fine Arts in dramatic literature, dramaturgy, acting and directing at Virginia Commonwealth University.
As a high school teacher and graduate student, she also teaches adjunct at Old Dominion University and Christopher Newport University as she pursues teaching full-time at the college level.
Insley’s passion for theater and teaching transcends the classroom, where she encourages students to travel, participate in productions and focus on what they want to get out of a theater class.
Insley has twice taken students to London to see the Globe, as well as Scotland, for the Fringe Festival. During the trips, students were able to perform, watch performances and participate in workshops.
“The program itself is great for the school. It’s such a positive program. It’s such a great way to put the school in a positive light,” York High School Principal Shannon Butler said.
In the classroom or theater, Insley focuses on building the actor along with confidence and putting real human emotion and connections into living stories.
For sophomore Parker Dayton, Insley helped him build confidence and find a place to fit in as he transferred from the Tabb area after middle school.
“She always made me feel welcome. It’s like a second home, a home away from home,” he said. “This whole experience has given me a whole lot more confidence, which will be useful no matter what.”
Outside the classroom, those human connections fuel Insley, who is quick to shout, “That’s what it’s about!” when she sees the successes of current or former students.
The day she learned of her recent award, Insley was standing in the hallway as a former student, who took a theater class two years prior, yelled out from down the hall her appreciation for Insley teaching her about character analysis, which led to a stellar grade in English class.
“That’s what it’s about!” Insley shouted.
Insley appreciates stories, which shows through her educational background, her favorite play “Aida” and the lives of her students, many of whom have shared in Insley’s passion for theater and taken it to the college and professional levels.
“Storytelling is and always has been and should always be important. Our world exists because of storytelling. We seek it out as people,” Insley said. “We just do it in a 3D format. It’s alive, and it’s personal. I don’t think there’s anything better than that.”
Insley has a number of success stories from her students, ranging from one being overwhelmed with excitement for an unexpected passing grade on a math exam to another who has gained the confidence to assistant direct an upcoming production.
“They fuel me daily,” she said.
The two students who nominated her for the national award are also having success in theater long past their years under Insley’s tutelage. Rivera is currently wrapping up a tour as an animal trainer and performer with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus and has performed for Disney, Universal and Hard Drive Entertainment. Witten became a theater major focusing on costume design and is now married with children.
One of Insley’s current students, senior Destiny Delaigle, who had the lead role in last weekend’s production of Footloose at York, has spent all four years of high school participating in theater and is planning on going to college for theater to teach.
“[Insley] has given me so much. I want them to have what she’s given me,” Delaigle said.
Insley has also been nominated for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award by the Tony Awards. Finalists will be announced in the spring prior to the June award show.
Insley said she will be taking some students to New York for the awards, which she has done regularly in the past as another facet of encouraging students to travel and gain worldly experiences.
“When she gave you direction, you did it. Not just because she told you to, but because
you saw her brilliance and trusted her vision and because you loved her,” Rivera wrote.