Dr. Andi Fourlis is knocking down walls in education.

This Arizona superintendent is revolutionizing team teaching and promoting collaboration in Mesa Public Schools.

By Brittany Edwardes Keil Last Updated: January 31, 2023

When she was five years old, Dr. Andi Fourlis could not have been more excited about her first day of kindergarten. After all, she had been playing school since she was a toddler. Everywhere she looked, Fourlis saw exciting lessons to teach and potential pupils to teach to. “The world was my classroom,” she tells us. “I used to teach the alphabet to the produce in the shopping cart while my mother pushed me through the supermarket.”

So no one could have been more surprised when Fourlis came home from her first day of school crying and promising never to go back. Her mother was so concerned: “But Andi, you love playing school! How could you not love school?” Through tears, the future lifelong educator replied, “You didn’t tell me that I wasn’t going to be the teacher!”

Decades later—including many years in which she was the teacher—Dr. Andi Fourlis of Mesa Public Schools in Arizona still loves school. “I knew from the beginning that I would be an educator,” she shares. “I knew that my purpose was to organize people and build experiences.” Now in her third year as the superintendent of the state’s largest school district, Fourlis is a leader in the charge to change the way we view the teaching profession. Her goal is to ensure that all students and teachers are able to love school—and all that it encompasses—just as much as she always has.

A Collaborator from the Start

When Fourlis began her career as a seventh grade language arts teacher in central Phoenix, she never imagined she’d eventually leave the classroom. But as Fourlis began growing into the teacher she would become, she quickly found herself looking outside the confines of her own classroom to better understand how to integrate what was working in other classrooms on her hall.

“One of my first experiences was noticing how isolated my own classroom felt from the rest of what my students were learning—and from the rest of their lives,” Fourlis remembers. “This really prodded me to consider how we could rethink the learning experiences of our students. Looking back, though, I realize now that I was already thinking about how to make the experience of teaching more effective and satisfying, even as a first-year teacher.”

This would be the first of many moments in which Fourlis would push for collaboration over isolation. Only months into her teaching career, she sought to de-silo her instruction by sharing classes with the social studies teacher across the hall. “It was perfect. She had amazing content about history that really resonated with my students, and I had the ability to focus on the literacy skills my students needed to understand the texts,” Fourlis explains. This natural inclination toward collaboration would become a hallmark of both Fourlis’ teaching and leadership styles.

Fourlis found that working on a team allowed for more opportunities to have eyes on students—and to get real-time feedback from other professionals. It was the kind of high-growth environment that she—and her students—needed the most. “In my second year of teaching, my teammate and I convinced my principal to knock down the wall between my classroom and the math classroom next door,” Fourlis says. “We really had to convince him that what we were trying worked—and he was impressed!”

Like many future school leaders, Fourlis was completely focused on her own craft and didn’t imagine ever moving into administration. She loved her classroom, which she now describes as having a family environment. “I realized early on that many of my students needed more from me than an education—they needed a sense of love and safety,” Fourlis says. With this in mind, she built her teaching philosophy on the belief that between her two core values of love and collaboration, her students could thrive no matter what was happening outside of the classroom.

Fourlis’ pedagogical success did not go unnoticed. During a typical round of administrative classroom evaluations, the teacher leader evaluating her asked if she had ever considered mentoring other teachers. Fourlis was initially hesitant, expressing that she was deeply invested in the work of her classroom. But after repeated nudges from various leaders in her district, she decided to accept a formalized mentorship role.

Shifting to Lead

While Fourlis’ experiences in the classroom will always be her deepest roots, she found a new world of impact in her work as a mentor to teachers. “I never had a vision of becoming an administrator or leaving the classroom,” she explains. “Rather, I was concerned with the question, How can I help other teachers? That was my motivation and my problem to solve.” Working with other educators—and sharing the teaching methods that had worked so well for her—became her new calling. She would continue to travel this continuum of teacher support and leadership all the way to the superintendency.

Fourlis would spend the next decade working in curriculum development, constantly rethinking what it means to optimally equip teachers to do their jobs. She then became the chief learning officer at the Arizona Science Center—a position that allowed her to scale her impact in a new environment. In this role, she worked hard to master industry best practices and invest in innovation.

In reflecting on her many roles, Fourlis is eager to talk about all the lessons she learned along the way. “The most important thing I learned was that the skills that carried me to success in one position were not guaranteed to serve me in the next one,” she says. “I had to be continually listening, learning, and pushing myself in new directions. You never truly leave your foundation, but you must be continually open to searching and understanding the new environments you’re working in.”

Fourlis believes that retaining a beginner’s mindset is critical, especially as the field of education changes so rapidly. “I can’t go into a classroom with the same skills that made me successful decades ago,” she says. “This is now, and I have to have empathy —whether it’s for a student, teacher, or administrator—and really observe what their challenges are. If we aren’t empathetic, if we don’t try to understand the struggle, we’re never going to design what needs to come next.”

While she has continued to develop new skills during her transition into leadership, Fourlis remains strikingly true to her original philosophy of love and collaboration. She began her career with the intention of organizing people and creating experiences, and learned early on that collaboration was key. As she works to find what should come next in the field of K-12 education, these core values are resurfacing in surprising—and exciting—ways.

A Team Approach

Like many administrators, Fourlis has viewed recent turbulence in the world of education with a sense of trepidation, but also opportunity. The roles that schools play in daily life, and the roles of the educators working within them, are changing at a fast pace—sometimes more dramatically than they have in decades. For her, the pandemic and its ensuing cultural shifts have illuminated problems and structural inadequacies that generally already existed, sometimes even for years. Fourlis believes that districts can’t wait for sunnier skies; they have to build structures that will weather any storm.

If you’ve heard anything about Mesa Public Schools in the past few years, you have likely learned that the district is in the midst of broad and sweeping change. They’ve made national news more than once—especially for their innovative teacher recruitment programs and unique team teaching approach. Fourlis is happy to share that she’s not the sole initiator of Mesa’s impressive new endeavors. She is, however, dedicated to creating the best experiences for teachers and their students—even if that means drastically changing the way instruction is delivered.

In November 2022, Mesa received national attention for its unique team teaching approach, in which groups of educators work in tandem to teach multisubject classes—some of which have over 100 students. Articles in education journals such as the Hechinger Report and Education Week speculate that this strategy could help address national concerns like teacher shortages and student behavior issues.

But even considering Fourlis’ success with team teaching, this approach can seem mind-boggling. After all, don’t most educators want smaller class sizes? Upon further investigation, though, it’s clear that this highly collaborative method could become the future of the classroom experience. In fact, a recent study from Johns Hopkins University found that teachers who team teach have higher job satisfaction than those who don’t. The team teaching environment appears to have a positive impact on educational outcomes for students, too.

While Mesa incorporates a variety of team teaching methods, this particular model was first piloted at Westwood High School. In this iteration of team teaching, groups of four teachers voluntarily collaborate on a shared roster. While any classroom possesses some degree of controlled chaos, these team-taught classrooms can be particularly robust, with many moving parts all at once. In fact, while some teams focus on a single grade level, others can teach groups that span multiple grades. Within these groups, the teachers use their creativity—and shared sense of ownership over the class—to decide how to structure their daily lessons and how to group students for focus and intervention throughout the day.

When Fourlis talks about this model, she describes how intentionality is woven into designing each of Mesa’s teacher teams. Her administrators consider more than subject areas when deciding which teachers should work together—they also consider each teacher’s individual strengths. Who is really strong at integrating technology into their lessons? Which teacher always knocks it out of the park with primary sources?

These questions and more allow Mesa to build teams of teachers who can complement—and learn from—one another’s strengths. Administrators also work with the educators involved to determine their non-negotiables and what each team needs to be successful. This has included shared planning time, a consistent shared roster, and opportunities for professional development related to co-teaching.

Fourlis admits that, at first, some parents were a little skeptical. However, since classes have been underway, both families and students have responded with enthusiasm. Although joining a teaching team in Mesa is 100% voluntary, it has become more popular the longer the programs have existed. “Over the past few years, I’ve encouraged teachers who were initially reluctant to consider team teaching to go and observe team classes to see what their colleagues are so excited about,” Fourlis explains. “More often than not, those same teachers become the strongest advocates for our model.”

And it seems there are many positive things to share about this highly collaborative approach. Team teaching allows teachers a degree of flexibility that is impossible within the traditional classroom structure. Because teachers share responsibility for the room, there’s no trouble in stepping outside for a restroom break or phone call—a luxury that many classroom teachers don’t have. Substitute teachers are also generally more comfortable if there are other educators in the room.

But perhaps most important is each team’s shared sense of responsibility for the students on their roster. “When you’re teaching students who are all yours, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders,” Fourlis tells us. “There’s a constant fear that you’re going to miss something and let a kid down. With a team teaching model, that weight isn’t exclusively yours to bear.”

Teachers aren’t the only fans of this new approach, either. Student growth in the district has also quickly become apparent. Within this model, students are able to work on projects that encompass a variety of subject areas. For example, an essay that involves primary historical sources could count for grades in both language arts and social studies. This way, students can consistently connect the skills they’re learning in one subject area with the rest of their academic work.

While this model has many benefits, one stands out. Team teaching has allowed the district to think more strategically about how they develop their teachers, including preparing them to be social-emotional learning coaches. “One of my favorite outcomes of this program was that it coincided with a push to increase the number of therapy dogs in our classrooms,” Fourlis says. “This is just another strength that a team teacher can bring to their team—if you have a therapy dog certification, then a therapy dog gets to be on your team, too.”

Photograph of Dr. Andi Fourlis kneeling next to a student at her desk
Photo courtesy of Mesa Public Schools

No Plateaus at Mesa

When asked what sets Mesa apart, Fourlis says it’s the kindness and community that are both cornerstones of her staff and school cultures. She tells us about entire families who work at Mesa and the many employees who have worked at the district for their entire careers. Even though Mesa is one of the largest school districts in the entire Southwest, Fourlis believes her schools share a unique heartbeat that permeates the entire district.

Being such a large district also comes with its challenges, though, especially with Fourlis’ signature collaborative design. Smaller districts can hold administrators’ meetings in a conference room. But to gather Mesa’s 300-plus building-level administrators in one place, Fourlis has to rent a ballroom. Navigating the scope of this vastness can be challenging, especially as someone who believes in the power of human connection and collaboration.

“I would love to get to more schools more often,” Fourlis shares. “It takes me an entire year to get around to all of the schools in my district, and to do that, I have to work hard.” One side effect of her collaborative style of leadership is that sometimes change can take longer than people might expect. Fourlis believes in the value of listening carefully to stakeholders when making major decisions, and she admits that this can simply take time.

In reflecting on her work as a superintendent, Fourlis is proud of her reputation in the district. “I am proud that I am seen as the kind of person who will listen and empathize, who will work hard to come up with creative solutions,” she explains. “In my heart of hearts, I really do believe that anything is possible if we work together. We have the talent and we have the motivation. I know we can do it.”

Fourlis credits listening and empathy—and always coming from a place of support—with helping her find success at Mesa. “I have found that how you make people feel is one of the most important ingredients to making change,” she says. “If you make people feel good, if you make people feel heard and safe, then when you roll out a new initiative they will be so much more willing to create the change you need.”

Designing Instruction for a New Generation

While much of Fourlis’ work has centered around optimizing the student experience, she is—at her heart—always an educator. This means that she is deeply committed to exploring how to make teaching a highly sought-after employment option. Fourlis believes that team teaching alone won’t fundamentally change the teaching profession. Rather, it has to be part of a concerted effort to radically rethink how schools function, from the bell schedule to the grading policies.

“Teachers don’t leave the work,” Fourlis explains. “They leave the working conditions. Today’s generation is looking for collaboration and flexibility. If we don’t redesign the teaching profession to do that, we’re going to continue to be in a crisis for teachers.”

When it comes to initiating this necessary change, Fourlis leans heavily into research, both on how this change should take shape and how to get new people on board. “Change happens by invitation first, and after that, with plenty of support,” Fourlis tells us. “You have to recruit and be mindful of how you manage your talent. If you start small with the right people, you get success, and then success breeds success.”

In the end, Fourlis believes that any step toward improving models of teaching must be taken with one core belief in mind: Education has the immense power to create happy, healthy people living in happy, healthy communities. This, Fourlis says, is her deepest motivation. “I’ve been reading a lot about the science of hope,” she says. “I’ve been told a lot of times that hope is not a strategy. But here’s what hope really is: a set of goals with pathways connected to them. And when you create a goal and create a pathway to get there—that’s the work of a superintendent.”

Originally titled "Knocking Down Walls" in the Winter 2023 edition of SchoolCEO Magazine.

Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!

SchoolCEO logo