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How do programs approach elementary STEM teacher leadership?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

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


Although teacher leader programs tailor their activities to participants’ needs and local contexts, professional development focusing on elementary STEM teachers’ needs commonly include:

A two-pronged approach, focusing on building elementary teacher leaders’ STEM instructional practice as well as teachers’ leadership skills

Professional development that meets the unique needs of elementary teachers focus on STEM content, project-based learning, the use of STEM resources, and the challenges of balancing multiple subjects in a school day. In terms of leadership development, common topics included advocating for STEM education with administrators and lawmakers, assessing state STEM education capacity, creating district-wide STEM action plans, and teaching and leading adults.

For example, teachers in one program benefited from personalized professional development. Based on their self-identified growth areas, such as STEM content or project-based learning, they were given the opportunity to choose their own online professional development sessions. This program also held general-interest sessions that provided training on advocacy issues, informing teachers on how to reach out to state representatives, bring those representatives into STEM classrooms, and advocate for STEM education throughout the state. These teachers were also paired with STEM-focused businesses for summer internships, lessons from which they used to create STEM lesson plans. Teachers then reviewed one another’s work, so teachers with strong content knowledge could share their expertise with other teachers.

Opportunities to collaborate and receive feedback from fellow STEM teachers

Programs can develop a variety of ways for teacher leaders to collaborate with and receive feedback from other elementary STEM teachers. For instance, a residential professional development component can help elementary STEM teachers build their network and collaborate closely. Internships also develop networks by providing teachers the chance to work alongside university researchers, industry experts, or technological specialists. These opportunities aren’t specific to elementary education, but they can be uniquely beneficial for elementary teachers because they elevate teachers’ experience and confidence in their science knowledge and skills. Programs also reported putting teachers in teams to iterate on and evaluate lesson plans, aiding teachers in identifying elementary STEM education experts whom they can approach for support.

One program, for example, brought teachers together in a two-week intensive summer training where teachers lived together and many formed close relationships. In part through writing and commenting on mandatory blog posts, teachers stayed connected afterwards. The program staff found that teachers often went above and beyond to stay in touch by connecting on Twitter and other social media sites. Using the online lesson-sharing platform allowed participants to create a professional learning community beyond state borders.

Access to the leadership team to ensure STEM education is a school priority

Embedding STEM teacher leaders on school leadership teams ensures that STEM education has a voice in school decisions. This approach is particularly useful at the elementary level, where emphasis on STEM education is less common.

One program took a holistic approach to STEM teacher leadership development: after teachers spent a year developing their STEM capabilities, they joined their school leadership teams to develop a STEM action plan for their respective districts. Establishing this clear role for a STEM teacher leader showed that the district valued elementary STEM education, and bringing in an expert STEM teacher with content knowledge ensured that the plan was educator- and student-friendly.

In another case, teacher leaders participated with their school administrators in professional development to evaluate their elementary school science contexts. The resulting evaluations informed school improvement efforts, guided by STEM teacher leaders in partnership with the school administration. Administrators’ and teacher leaders’ working together in both the professional development and the evaluation of the schools’ science education enabled joint decisionmaking.

A school or district platform to model exemplary STEM teaching and generate conversation about STEM education

As a visible platform to share exemplary STEM teaching, elementary schools can keep strong STEM instructors in the classroom. Teacher leaders lead by example while also supporting school-wide STEM initiatives. Since these teachers are already skilled at delivering STEM content to students, efforts to increase their impact focus on leadership training. Programs that focus on classroom teachers’ leadership skills emphasize topics including school change, best practices for leading peers, the use of data to inform change, and systems perspectives. Teacher leaders who participate in this type of training learn how to model STEM lessons and lead conversations about STEM education.

One program had elementary teacher leaders mentor their colleagues, work with their school’s cross-disciplinary leadership team to develop strategies for successful STEM instruction, and plan science-centered events, all with the goal of articulating a shared school-wide vision for science instruction. The program also helped teacher leaders collect and interpret information with a program-specific tool to examine various dimensions of a school’s science program such as curriculum and instruction or collaboration and planning. This tool first guided the teacher leaders’ evidence gathering. These data subsequently informed a critique of school conditions, which in turn shaped an action plan. The action plan created structures to promote science instruction and support teacher leadership and collaboration in the school.

Another program explicitly required elementary STEM teacher leaders to start school-wide conversations on how administrators and STEM teachers could work together, best practices and lessons learned about teaching with technology, and helping teachers find useful resources for teaching STEM. This strategy fostered a STEM culture at the school level and helped spread elementary STEM teacher leaders’ knowledge efficiently.