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How can teachers identify and create their own opportunities for STEM teacher leadership?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

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


How can teachers identify and create their own opportunities for STEM teacher leadership? – Building STEM Teacher Leadership

STEM teachers can identify specific issues in STEM education in their schools or districts and take action to address these issues. This form of leadership can emerge naturally from individual action, peer collaboration, and teacher voice, rather than as a top-down assignment. There are many opportunities for STEM teacher leadership, whether through formal or informal roles. Examples of taking the initiative include:

  • Sharing resources and innovative practices with peers
  • Starting a STEM club at school
  • Engaging students in STEM projects for the community
  • Creating a makerspace (a "do-it-yourself" space with resources for students to gather, design, create, and learn) in the classroom and inviting peers and students to explore this setting
  • Initiating collaborations among community agencies, teachers, and students to apply STEM concepts to real world problems
  • Participating in research or curriculum development efforts, within the district or led by other organizations
  • Sharing knowledge with peers through non-district avenues (e.g., professional associations, online platforms, conferences, inter-district visits, adjunct higher education positions, advisory and work groups)

All of these examples have two things in common: teachers taking initiative to extend their reach beyond their own classrooms, and teachers continuing to develop their practice to improve STEM learning opportunities for their students.

Below are first-person vignettes of STEM teacher leadership that began through the efforts of one STEM teacher with an idea, leading toward greater student and educator learning. The vignettes describe self-directed STEM teacher leadership in:

Creating and promoting a makerspace - high school biology teacher

This year I have started a STEAM Club at my high school and created a makerspace in my room. Slowly, classes and individual students have begun to check out this space and utilize it. My next step is to reach out to other teachers and classes and encourage them to use the makerspace and STEM activities to augment their classes.

As an example, the chemistry teacher and I are trying to develop a solar panel phone charging project for her voltage cell unit in chemistry. We want to engage the STEAM Club in helping acquire the materials and support her classes by building the project in the makerspace.

My hope is to begin supporting more STEM across the district at all grade levels. I've attended several Maker Fairs that encourage across district projects, scaled to each grade level. I think it is an awesome idea to have a project the entire district is working on simultaneously. The additional possibilities for this type of activity are endless.

Establishing a forest and wildlife research center - high school biology teacher

My students and I had an idea for a Forest and Wildlife Research Center to support educational programs for middle and high school students. A little over a year ago, my students proposed the project to our Board of Education and, as of today, the build site has been cleared in our school's forest and design plans have been sent to the state!

The students have been involved and are learning the entire way. A student actually just completed all the drawings that were submitted to the state, after working with the architects in their office. The Center will be housed in a 40 foot x 80 foot structure that includes a classroom and sawmill. The classroom will support research opportunities in areas of sustainable and renewable energy, forest management, and wildlife studies. A sawmill will support learning opportunities in logging, technology, construction and building trades.

The Center will expand learning opportunities in forestry, environmental science, and emerging STEM-related careers. It will support innovation in college and career readiness and partnerships with local businesses, community agencies, and colleges and universities. The core curriculum for the Center will be aligned with the state Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics standards.

The proposed Forestry & Wildlife Center will also be used to support a yearly forestry day, an annual gathering where students host the state Forest Owners Association’s Day of Learning. A project goal is to provide on-site teacher professional development opportunities in cooperation with the regional STEM Hub.

Establishing a math community of practice - middle school math teacher

Although I am not a department chair, I've worked as a teacher leader the past few years to increase communication about and coordination of math instructional practices across K-12 classrooms. It has been a slow process, but we are beginning to form a more cohesive community of math educators and math students.

I recently orchestrated a K-12 discussion on the use of models in building mathematical understanding. As a teacher team, we saw how models are used throughout the curriculum. My goal is to initiate an instructional shift in grades 3-12 and to empower teachers to follow the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract model in support of student learning. I want to shift the focus of instruction to students doing math and making connections, rather than passively receiving information in lecture format.

I'm currently working within my district to create peer coaching teams, develop district-wide norms for mathematics learning, and initiate quality math professional development opportunities that reach across all grade levels.

Promoting a growth mindset through informal conversations - high school math teacher

I teach at a school that primarily serves students with high emotional needs. Recently, I tried to share my interest and work in growth mindset with my team. They didn’t really see this as a workable option for their classrooms.

Then the new administration started talking to us about how we assess students and encouraging us to consider incorporating opportunities to redo assignments and retake assessments. Our conversations were guided by questions, but no real plans or changes were made in this discussion phase. After that, we attended professional development about growth mindset and how it really gives students hope that they can be successful in class.

When I again brought up my work with growth mindset and how effective my efforts have been with students in my class, my team was willing to hear some of my ideas and possibly try some things in their classrooms.

Working in a building where most of the staff have more experience than I do—and thus "know" more than I do—has created a very challenging situation in leadership. But I have seen the transformation in my students for myself and I am confident that sharing what I've learned with my team is valuable. I think leadership can happen without being a leader. I think I can make a change in the school a little bit at a time. With my subtle suggestions and their observations, I think I have a chance to lead the group from within. Leadership is standing up for what you believe, doing what you believe is right or best for the students.

Establishing a STEM careers club - high school biology/chemistry teacher

I was interested in leading student groups in different activities and was able to form clubs around some of them. The first is about 3 years old now and is called the STEM Careers Club. It is a very broad-based club. Each year, the students choose the focus.

It started with students wanting to talk to professionals about what their jobs are really like. We had a doctor talk about medical school and ideas for college courses of study. We had architects, engineers, and physician assistants come on different nights, present to the students and then answer questions. The club has brought in past graduates that are in college to talk about what classes they wish they had taken in high school and what college was like.

We have helped students get internships for the summer. Club members have participated locally in various internships that focus on such things as cancer research, use of robotics in cancer research, waterway and watershed protection. Each December the club offers an afterschool event to introduce students to computer programming.