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How can STEM teacher leadership benefit my school and the work of administrators?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

Reflections by the STEM teacher leader community on opportunities and gaps in STEM teacher leader development efforts


STEM teacher leadership can positively influence a school or district and support the work of administrators by:

Deepening student engagement

“When you walk into a classroom that is involved in guided science inquiry, you can’t pick out the low-achieving students; they are often the most engaged…. [Students’] literacy advances through these experiences, as does their critical thinking and problem-solving. They are learning how to ‘be in the world,’ not just take tests.” School-level administrator

The most important element of STEM teacher leadership is the potential impact on student engagement and learning.

STEM instruction can effectively engage students in answering real-world questions and applying knowledge in relevant ways, so that they are less inclined to ask “When am I ever going to use this?” When deeply engaged, students may be more likely to develop STEM content knowledge and skills needed in an evolving world, such as the ability to think creatively, analyze information, develop curiosity, collaborate, and use technological tools to answer questions. However, teachers need support and access to resources to develop and deliver deeply engaging lessons. STEM teacher leaders can be the source of support by:

  • Helping teachers craft engaging learning experiences in the STEM content areas
  • Supporting teachers in deepening the content and pedagogical knowledge needed for transformative teaching and learning
  • Providing resources and ongoing professional development, while facilitating a school-wide shift toward more engaging, authentic, relevant STEM instruction
  • Promoting teacher dialogue and commitment to student engagement in STEM, so that effective practices and examples are shared across a school or district
  • Coordinating partnerships or activities that expand learning opportunities in authentic, engaging ways (e.g., work-based learning, field trips, citizen research)

Improving teaching practice

STEM teacher leaders can work with colleagues across the building or district to improve STEM teaching practice, delivering:

  • Job-embedded professional development
  • STEM-specific knowledge
  • STEM instructional leadership

Job-embedded professional development. STEM teacher leaders are well-positioned to provide the job-embedded professional development—including coaching, modelling, and facilitation of communities of practice—that can lead to changes in teacher practice. Typically, STEM teacher leaders are situated alongside teachers, are given explicit responsibilities for supporting teachers, and have professional experience and credibility.

STEM-specific knowledge. More than generalist teacher leaders, teacher leaders with a STEM background have the content and pedagogical knowledge needed to provide STEM-specific support. They know the intricacies of content standards in the STEM areas, and understand how teachers may be able to integrate STEM (and other) content areas. STEM teacher leaders also have knowledge of the STEM-specific resources, educational programming, and professional development that can guide teacher practice.

Instructional leadership. To develop and implement a school or district plan for improving STEM teaching and learning, it helps to have an in-house leader with a dedicated role for managing instructional improvement. Schools can benefit from a STEM teacher leader who has time to work directly with teachers, knows STEM content and instruction deeply, and is skilled in helping fellow teachers develop. Where teachers may be reluctant to stray from their past practices and curricula, a STEM teacher leader can help them address standards confidently and effectively, delivering engaging and authentic lessons.

Snapshot: STEM teacher leader role in improving teacher practice

In one district, STEM teacher leaders organize day-long visits and discussions in which elementary, middle, and high school STEM teachers observe instruction and data meetings across grade bands. Afterward, the STEM teacher leaders facilitate roundtable discussions about learnings and plans for future work. One high school math teacher said, “This was the greatest professional development I’ve ever received. Just in a few hours, I picked up so many new techniques that I am dying to try out with some of my struggling algebra students.”

Increasing teacher voice and engagement

Lasting meaningful change in schools requires teacher input. STEM teacher leader positions can amplify teacher voice in planning for STEM programming.

“These leaders have been the eyes, ears, and legs of this innovation…. These leaders are side-by-side peers to other teachers and influence the rate and depth of adoption of new strategies, as well as being the first to identify problems.” School-level administrator

Principals can empower STEM teacher leaders to design the roadmap for a successful school-wide implementation, drawing on input from teacher colleagues. Administrators can select and develop STEM teacher leaders to ensure they are innovative, strong in content knowledge, and effective as instructional coaches. Their work can engage other teachers in creating rigorous classroom instruction based on real-world connections that foster student engagement, and teachers may be more likely to support these efforts if they believe the work is led by their peers. Those who continuously deepen their content knowledge and pedagogy may be more energized to take ownership over STEM learning.

Expanding capacity to support and sustain STEM improvement

Effective STEM teacher leaders are well positioned to expand the STEM capacity of schools and their leadership teams because they:

Stay current in STEM. Staying up-to-date on STEM-related issues requires frequent studying the advances in these fields and related pedagogy. STEM teacher leaders can support administrators by staying abreast of current work and marshaling continuous improvement in STEM instruction.

Operate with a sense of urgency. Beyond advocating for STEM content, STEM teacher leaders can provide a sense of urgency for designing high-quality classroom instruction that is based on the most recent evidence-based practices. One principal noted that the STEM teacher leader is “the one who raises the alert that some students are not being exposed to the highest quality of instruction.” This vigilance is most likely to be sustained by a teacher leader with the dedicated time to work with colleagues rather than by staff members stretched thin due to other responsibilities.

Develop strong STEM partnerships. STEM teacher leaders can develop and nurture partnerships with industry, grant programs, research organizations, higher education, government agencies, out-of-school-time programs, philanthropy, and so on. As part of a broader cross-sector STEM ecosystem, these partners can help to:

  • Expand STEM learning opportunities
  • Build broader community support for STEM education
  • Link schools to other resources and organizations through their networks
  • Sustain efforts through times of change in leadership, priorities, or funding

Are true believers in STEM. STEM teacher leaders can serve as beacons and advocates for STEM improvement efforts, using their sincere passion to sustain implementation. One principal pointed to the importance of having a true believer lead STEM improvement, saying: “You can’t light the fire of passion in someone else if it doesn’t burn in you to begin with.”