When Natasha Pennycuff was earning her teaching degree, she would often start her day at 5 a.m., and not return home to Eastpoint from night school in Panama City until after 10:30 pm.
Before Debra Fletcher embarked on a teaching career, she did missionary work in South America and worked as restaurateur.
Two very different women, with contrasting paths to a similar destination, an opportunity to shape the lives of Franklin County young people as teachers in the public schools.
Last month, Pennycuff and Fletcher were each named Teachers of the Year within the district. Pennycuff, who has taught first grade for four years, was named the top teacher for the elementary school grades, while Fletcher, who heads up the culinary arts program, was teacher of the year for the middle and high schools.
At a brief early morning ceremony at breakfast, Pennycuff was announced as the district-wide Teacher of the Year, and will represent Franklin in the competition for the 2018 Macy’s/Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year Award.
Pennycuff succeeds Lynn Clark as the elementary, and Jennifer Edwards as the district, Teacher of the Year, and both women were on hand to share in the glory of their successors.
The daughter of Charles and Lina Pennycuff, of Eastpoint, Pennycuff graduated Carrabelle High School in 2006, and then earned her associates degree in elementary two years later from Gulf Coast State College, and a bachelors in education from Florida State University in education in May 2010.
In August 2010, she began as a first grade teacher, which she had been training for as part of earlier classroom experience after working for the district part-time while she went to school in Panama City at night.
Between class work and course work, she would often start her day at 5 a.m., and not return home until 10:30 p.m.
As a teacher of a classroom of 18, Pennycuff’s task each day is to help build fundamental skills in reading, by stressing phonics, the sounds of blended letters, as well as in mathematics, where she educates her youngsters on basic addition and subtraction, on finding what the missing numbers are in equations and in understanding the grouping of values, such as how 10 groups of 10 add up to a 100.
Each morning the students also sharpen their writing and creating skills. Pennycuff puts a writing prompt on the board, like “what happened during the storm?” or “what did you do over Christmas vacation?” and the students write a short essay, complete with a drawing to enhance their expressiveness.
The children are clearly enthusiastic about their work, eager to show it off, even though not all the words may be able to be clearly understood.
“They are working on phonetic spelling,” Pennycuff said. “By working on sounds they learn how to spell. They write three or four sentences, with proper punctuation, and with a focus on the topic sentences, and they’ll include a picture.”
The morning activities were cut short with a sounding of the bell that signaled a lockdown drill was in place, in which students were asked to keep the classroom door locked and to be still. These lockdowns are used to help in preparing students for emergencies, such as storms, or even for the unimaginable, such as an active shooter drill, one of which is planned for later in the year.
On this day the rules of a drug sweep on campus meant students could not leave their classrooms and Pennycuff took the opportunity to gather the students together and keep them quiet, to help prepare them for the type of rules that will be in place when the drill is more restrictive.
It was at this moment she showed the type of patience and loving-kindness that marks her success as a young teacher. She spoke reassuringly to the children about the need to be quiet and they followed suit. She kept their jitters to a minimum by focusing their attention not on any external crisis, but on the internal need for them to be careful and protective of one another.
“Instead of telling them to put their ‘chin on the floor,’ we use practical terms and tell them to Be Safe,” she said. “I use practical things, redirecting them to make positive choices.”
From missionary to mission accomplished
In her role teaching culinary arts, Fletcher enables students to earn state certifications, everything from a food handler to a food manager license, which are three and five year licenses.
In the four years since she left the private sector as a restaurateur, the participation in Fletcher’s program has more than doubled, from 56 in 2012 to about nearly 130 students this year, learning at four different levels.
Fletcher’s background in the subject of hospitality dates back to her childhood, where she grew up in Lynn Haven as the grandchild of Capt. C. S. Anderson, the town’s father, and namesake of the famous restaurant.
She graduated from Mosley, and was married six months after graduation. From there she embarked on the challenge on working as a missionary to youth, in North, South and Central America.
When she and her husband Jeff began a family, they returned home, living at Indian Pass while her husband pursued a career in real estate. The couple traveled the world a lot, and chose to homeschool their children.
In 2009, they moved to Apalachicola, and partnered with downtown building owner Dan Davis to open the Hole in the Wall restaurant.
Jeff gutted the interior and created the dining atmosphere, while Debra designed the menu and managed the operation, including handling the cooking assignment. “I cooked it all, using hand picked vegetables,” she said.
It was then that the job opened up at the school, and it caught Fletcher’s eye.
“We had just survived during the oil spill, thrived during it, but looking to the future, there was more risk than we wanted to take long-term,” she said. “I love to teach, and knew I was capable of doing it, and loved kids. So I jumped off a cliff and came here.”
From the start, Fletcher has worked to instill in students a foundation upon which they can build a career in the industry.
“There were several things that were crucial to address immediately,” she said. “We came right after the oil spill and I could see the negative effects on young people here. Kids pulled out of school to go to work. You had a lot of students pretty much raising themselves. So I try to give them a skill where you could support themselves.
“My goal was hospitality, that’s what I studied when I was in missions,” she said. “You want to know me and what I’m about? There’s nothing more precious to me than being around a table.
“I tell students ‘Think about the table what all it entails and what all it can accommodate. You have the power to create that for others in life. They’re going to have to eat all their life.’”
Fletcher said her love and commitment to the program continued to build as she witnessed her success.
“I could see kids inspired by their own self-confidence because they had accomplished something, and that made me want to go more,” she said.
Each year about half of the graduating class was able to find work, in restaurants and other facilities from Carrabelle to Mexico Beach, with chefs up and down the coast. One of them has even gone on to higher education at the Culinary Institute, to perfect his dream of becoming a chef.
“It (the industry) becomes like a buoy for them. To me what I saw was the depth of these kids suffering has become the breadth of their success,” said Fletcher.
In her tenure here she has built up a solid rapport with restaurant owners, and has created a catering program, which has catered for Duke Energy, the organization for retired teachers, the Philaco Woman’s Club, the Chef Sampler, sometimes for as many as 350 people.
“There is no end to what this class could accomplish,” she said. “The problem we suffer from in this area is a poverty of mind, a poverty of health and a poverty of wealth. If you don’t have first two in order you’re never going to achieve wealth.”
To drive that point home, she said she’s help a 28-year-old Food Stamp, before the current credit card came into existence, and had her students bring her a list of what it could buy, and then showed how more healthful items could be purchased for the same amount.
“You can make carpet taste good if you have good gravy,” she told them.