The work that made Anna Heyer stand out—her signature program to build a cadre of teacher-leaders in science—almost didn’t happen. The fact that it did speaks volumes about Heyer’s distinctive brand of leadership.
Colleagues in the Flowing Wells Unified school district, in Tucson, Ariz., where Heyer is the science coordinator, describe her as a ball of energy, relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. She’s famous for her intense listening and the way she rolls feedback into revised plans that reflect her colleagues’ expertise and concerns.
But Heyer is also unyieldingly persistent. She believes fiercely that curriculum leadership should come from teachers. “I knew they had so much more to offer as a group than I do by myself,” she said. “We’re better together.”
So, when district leaders politely rejected her 2018 proposal to train teachers to lead professional development and curriculum-writing on the state’s new science standards, Heyer did what she characteristically does: She listened to their objections, regrouped, and came back with a winning plan. Her new presentation dove into detail on why the district needed teacher-leaders in each building to meet the challenge of the new standards and how the training would be set up to ensure that teachers excelled.
“Anna heard ‘no’ quite a few times, but you could just feel her resolve. She’d always come back and say, ‘OK, how about this? Can we do this instead?’ ” said Patricia Gutierrez, who oversees PD in the district. “She was just convinced that if you find the right people and build their skills, leadership will take root and grow.”
- Root Your Work in Your Core Values: Have teachers develop a statement reflecting the values you want to see in your education programming. Our science education values are risk-taking, critical thinking, and perseverance. For each thing we do, we always check to see that it reflects those core values.
- Systemic Change Isn’t a Solo Act: If you’re going to change things in a school system, you’ll need the help of many other people. I’m only as good as the people around me.
- Learn Like You’re Thirsty for Water: You must keep learning. You have to be vulnerable and elicit even difficult feedback. You want to learn what’s happening with your staff, your teachers, because you can learn from it. Everyone down to a 5-year-old has something to teach you.
And grow it has. Twenty teachers from the district’s nine schools now serve as the district’s hive mind for science instruction. In an intensive 2019 training Heyer designed, they became experts in the state’s new science standards, then led sessions to immerse their fellow teachers in them as well. The leaders wrote curriculum units together for each grade and tried them out with their colleagues.
Training has been scaled down since the pandemic forced Flowing Wells schools first into remote mode and now into a hybrid model. But the curriculum writing continues virtually.
Teachers’ new roles build confidence, leadership
The project appears to be paying off. In a 2020 independent evaluation, teacher-leaders reported feeling much more confident about their knowledge of the new standards and their pedagogical skills. Their principals reported that they’re taking on new roles, too, such as serving on school leadership committees.
When it comes to teachers’ preparedness to teach the science standards, Flowing Wells is “light years ahead” of other districts in southern Arizona, said Margaret Wilch, the director of research at Southern Arizona Research Science and Engineering Foundation. Wilch has worked with districts around the state and said that Flowing Wells stands out because of the way Heyer cultivated expertise in each building and brought outside experts into the trainings to deepen teachers’ knowledge of each scientific discipline.
Arizona’s new science standards are modeled after the Next Generation Science Standards, which are so different from states’ previous ones that they require deep shifts in practice and thinking for teachers. All but six states have adopted the NGSS or versions of them. Instead of marching through topics and facts, Arizona’s standards—like the NGSS—envision discussions that begin with observing natural phenomena to spark students’ natural curiosity and lead them to ask questions.
I don’t believe any of us have true success in solitude.
Teachers in Flowing Wells have benefited from Heyer’s work outside the district. She served on a state education department panel that reviewed early drafts of the standards, so “she had her finger on the pulse, she knew what was coming, before the standards were ever adopted, and was already bringing that to her teachers,” said Gutierrez, the head of PD.
That dual awareness—thinking beyond her district but grounding those thoughts in action, in classrooms—epitomizes Heyer, said Sara Torres, the executive director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association.
“She does all this work all over the state, but she goes into classrooms and coaches teachers, works side by side with them,” Torres said. “She isn’t just a tell you, tell you, tell you person. She asks. She listens to them, hears where their frustration is, and models a strategy they can use in their classrooms.”
Making connections, expanding time on science
Heyer’s science leadership extends beyond the teacher-leadership work. Superintendent David Baker has noticed that she’s often scouring the district’s math and reading materials to find places science could integrate nicely into those disciplines. Associate Superintendent Kevin Stoltzfus said Heyer was instrumental in redesigning the district’s science sequence so that 9th grade students start high school with conceptual physics to bolster their understanding of Algebra 1 concepts.
Science often gets short shrift in the country’s accountability-driven focus on math and reading. But Heyer has led a push to make sure that doesn’t happen in Flowing Wells. Elementary students spend five to seven hours a week on science, including their interdisciplinary units in math and reading. That’s an important leg up in a district where most of the 6,000 students are Latinx and from low-income families. Nationally, elementary students spend on average less than two hours a week on science, according to a 2018 survey.
Heyer’s style has clear roots in her upbringing in Texas. From her parents, who were both doctors, she learned the importance of fighting for what you believe in, seeing the best in everyone, and never taking yourself too seriously. Her maternal grandmother was a shaping force, too; she was a terrific listener and generous with praise for her granddaughter and others around her.
As a teenager, Heyer loved science and was drawn to its public-health and social-justice contexts. In high school, she volunteered at a Forth Worth day camp for families affected by HIV. As a biology major at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., she participated in a public-health program in South Africa.
At Wake Forest, Heyer had a mentor who forged a turning point in her life. They worked together in a bat echolocation lab, but he recognized how she thrived on group work and conversation. She wasn’t meant for a research lab, he told her; she needed a science career with lots of human interaction. He gave her a chance to take their bat research to a Florida camp for elementary students. The light bulb went on: Heyer loved teaching.
She got a master’s degree in education and took her first job teaching, in a Flowing Wells high school in 2007. Over the next five years, she’d teach biotechnology, chemistry, physics, and biology. After her first child was born, she cut back to part time, coordinating science fairs and coaching teachers, and by 2014, Heyer was focusing all her attention on professional development.
An idea that takes off
That’s how she connected with someone who’d become key to her teacher-leader program: DaNel Hogan, the executive director of the STEMAZing Project, a science and technology program created by the Pima County school superintendent’s office. Hogan had been working on teacher training in science with districts in her county, but Heyer took the idea to a new level.
There are 17 school districts in Pima County, including Flowing Wells, but none “took the idea of teacher-leadership and ran with it” like Heyer did, Hogan said. Heyer could have taught her teachers about the new standards in big sit-and-git sessions that dominate most PD. But she chose the teacher-leader approach because it capitalizes on teachers’ collective wisdom and opens the door to greater things.
“If people are going to feel the three things they really need to feel to stay in this profession—valued, capable, and influential—you need to empower them, to let them decide what workshops will be about, what the curriculum units will be like,” Heyer said. “I don’t believe any of us have true success in solitude.”
With her father’s good humor, Heyer jokes about her leadership style, saying she’s like the guy in the “Lone Nut” video who dances wildly by himself until others gradually join him, and a wild-dancing movement begins. When she gets an idea she’s convinced will solve a problem, she persists, hoping others will join her.
Heyer’s ideas are quietly shaping teachers’ lives. Schreen Marvin, a 2nd grade teacher-leader at one of Flowing Wells’ elementary schools, said her journey into leadership made her realize she loves curriculum development and wants to earn a master’s degree in it. The trainings, conducted in an inquiry style, with lots of hands-on activities and problem-solving—to reflect the way the standards envision teachers leading their classes—also helped her recover something precious that she’d lost.
“Anna’s style, how excited she gets, ignited a spark for science that I haven’t felt since I started teaching,” Marvin said. “She brought back the curiosity and love for science that I once had as a learner.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Where Teachers Take the Lead On Science Curriculum