"Teaching is hard work. We get pulled in a lot of different directions. I believe we should empower our teachers and help them to become highly accomplished."
An ordinary fall day in 2015 turned into an extraordinary day for Bend teacher Heather Anderson. She walked into Juniper Elementary School, where she teaches special reading and math skills, and was notified of an unexpected assembly of students, staff and administrators. At that surprise meeting, the school community informed her she was named "Oregon's Teacher of the Year for 2016" – the first Bend teacher to win the honor since 1992. The State's Department of Education has been naming a teacher of the year since 1955.
Anderson is in her fifth year of teaching at Juniper Elementary at the foot of Pilot Butte. As a Bend native, bringing home the prestigious award was special to her. As a child she attended Bear Creek Elementary and Pilot Butte Middle School. She graduated from Bend High School in 1996 before enrolling at Oregon State University.
After graduating from OSU, she earned her master's degree from George Fox University in Newberg and added another master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. Anderson is now seeking her doctorate degree. In addition to teaching special reading and math skills, she's also focused her studies on teacher leadership skills, mentoring many colleagues.
Anderson began her teaching career in Maryland and spent six years there while her husband was finishing studies at Georgetown University. Then they returned home where Anderson taught for four years at Three Rivers Elementary in Sunriver. Along her journey, she also found time to start a family. She has two boys, one in 3rd grade and another in kindergarten.
Anderson has these words of wisdom for students: "My advice is to work hard. Students that give it their best effort are the ones that are successful. Whether it's hard or easy for you, if you give your best effort, you'll accomplish it and be successful. We try to ingrain that in students early on and celebrate the process throughout," she says. She acknowledges there are parts of school that kids will enjoy and parts they will always dislike, but says a positive attitude will help guide their success.
As for her words of advice for parents, Anderson says: "Encourage your kids to read at home. It's the most essential thing. If kids learn to love to read when they are little then that's probably the best gift we can give them."
Special teachers also have special teachers in their lives. For Anderson, her support group included her mother and grandmother, both teachers. Proudly holding a picture of a one-room school house in which her grandmother taught beginning at age 16, Anderson says the picture is a reminder of the encouragement her family gave her and the inspiration that drives her today.
Reflecting on her formative years, Anderson says two teachers stand out. Catherine Cummings was a teacher at High Desert Middle School before recently retiring. "When she was my teacher, she was always hands-on and engaging. She gave us great projects to work through. We would dress up as characters to bring history alive," said Anderson. She would later seek Cummings' advice as she began teaching in Bend.
Another special teacher in Anderson's life was her high school Spanish teacher. "I never knew I had an interest in Spanish but started taking it at Bend High. Her name was Bonnie Elliott," Anderson says. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Elliott was Bend's last Oregon Teacher of the Year, in 1992. "She was a great inspiration to me, encouraging me to teach in Mexico during my college years. She was someone you knew you wanted to be like—motivational but strict and you learned a lot," says Anderson.
Acknowledging that the role of education and teaching is changing, Anderson says technology and social media will continue to be important teaching aids in the future, providing opportunities for "blended learning." Social media can be isolating, though, and Anderson says nothing can replace classroom interaction with teachers and classmates as aids in learning.
"Teaching is hard work. We get pulled in a lot of different directions. I believe we should empower our teachers and help them to become highly accomplished," she states. To that end, Anderson coaches teachers, including guidance for national certification. She's currently mentoring a group of 16 teachers within the district.
The torch of Teacher of the Year for 2017 was recently passed to Gloria Pereyra-Robertson of Medford's Howard Elementary. With that, Anderson reflected on her busy year. "It's been a lot of work serving as a role model while continuing my teaching duties and speaking out on behalf of education throughout the state and nation. But, it has been very rewarding," she says.
Anderson was also honored with the 2017 National Education Association's "Teaching Excellence" award, given to 40 recipients annually, and was selected as Grand Marshall of the 2016 Bend Christmas parade.