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What might administrators consider when initiating a new effort in STEM teacher leadership?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

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


The document, Leading from the Front of the Classroom: A Roadmap to Teacher Leadership that Works (The Aspen Institute, 2014), can be an excellent resource to use when initiating a STEM teacher leadership program. In particular, consider:

Effective teacher leadership marries form with function in order to create transformative change in schools. By function we mean that the teacher leadership programs are not created for their own sake but are designed to advance pressing priorities. By form, we mean that the teacher leader roles are clearly defined, with sufficient time, support, and resources to be effective. (The Aspen Institute, 2014, p. 3)

Consider the following principles in planning and initiating a new STEM teacher leader effort:

Considerations for Initiating STEM Teacher Leadership

Involve all stakeholders

Initiating a STEM teacher leadership model is a major undertaking with implications for a broad array of activities and relationships within the school and district. Launching such an educational initiative can benefit from substantial analysis of the current programming, strategic planning, stakeholder communication, and consensus building (See What steps could guide an administrator who is interested in implementing a STEM teacher leadership program?.)

The strategic plan for this effort can be aligned with or incorporated into the broader organizational plans, and it can be explicit about implementation goals and activities for each year. The planning stage can also establish measurable progress indicators and specify a plan for evaluation (See Evaluation of Teacher Leader Programs.)

During the planning phase, key stakeholders can be involved, including the school board, district leaders from STEM and non-STEM areas, school-level educators and administrators, external partners (e.g., philanthropy, industry, higher education), students, and parents.

Clearly Define the Goals and Vision of “STEM Education”

“Start with the end in mind. What is your vision for the STEM model in your building based on your identified need?…Whose vision is it? Have stakeholders been included in determining the model?” District-level administrator

One early consideration for administrators is the operational definition, goals, and vision their schools and districts have for “STEM education.” To what extent is the definition agreed upon, acted upon, and institutionalized across sub-units and educator ranks? Each district or school may want to go through a formal process of clarifying an organizational understanding of “STEM education,” and each may end up with a definition unique to their organization. Initiatives related to the STEM disciplines could then be aligned by this shared definition. For example, definitions can differ along the lines of these two examples:

Example A: STEM education includes each of the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, math—as well the sub-disciplines for each (e.g., biology, programming, robotics, algebra).

Example B: STEM education is the seamless integration of science, technology, engineering, and math and represents a change in mindset. STEM strands are not taught in isolation, nor are they even strands. Rather, STEM education imparts a skillset for global competitiveness and global cooperation simultaneously, the application of the skillset, and access to and support for teachers and principals that will ensure equity and access to a college and career pipeline for ALL students.

It may be important to highlight the differing assumptions about STEM education to identify goals, vision, and responsibilities of the STEM teacher leader. Aligning language and definitions early in the process allows for a shared understanding and shared vision among stakeholders.

Clearly Define the Goals and Vision of “STEM Teacher Leadership”

Along with developing a consensus vision of “STEM education,” administrators will likely want to collaboratively develop a definition of “STEM teacher leadership.” Implementation and evaluation of STEM teacher leadership will likely benefit from a clear and formal definition and vision. The overall vision and plan may specify goals, roles, characteristics of STEM teacher leaders, STEM education implementation activities, needed resources, relationship to other programs and priorities, and ways to measure progress. These aspects of the vision may be encapsulated in an implementation plan, perhaps one that anticipates the evolution of implementation over multiple years.

Clarifying a vision of STEM teacher leadership can involve input from district and school stakeholders to ensure buy-in from all levels. A formal sequence of stakeholder planning meetings early on can help build the vision and garner buy-in early on. It will be necessary to think about where the school currently is with STEM education, and where the stakeholders believe it needs to be. School leaders may wish to engage stakeholders in the following questions as they generate a vision for STEM teacher leadership:


      Sample Questions

Goals and Context
  • What are goals for STEM education?
  • What are goals for STEM teacher leadership? How can progress be measured?
  • How will STEM teacher leadership fit alongside other school initiatives and priorities?
STEM Teaching and Leanring
  • How comfortable are teachers with STEM content, curricula, and pedagogy, including inquiry-based learning and STEM integration?
  • What professional development have teachers already received and how effective was it? In what areas is professional development still needed?
  • What baseline data exists regarding student performance and interest in STEM subjects?
  • What are concerns to implementing STEM teaching and learning?
  • How will teachers respond to peer leadership/coaching?
  • Is there a growth mindset among faculty and administration?
  • Do faculty and administration believe in STEM integration and the coaching model?

Differentiate STEM Teacher Leadership from Other Teacher Leadership

Because STEM teacher leadership is relatively new, it is important to consider the skills and dispositions that set STEM teacher leaders apart from other teacher leaders or coaches.

All accomplished teacher leaders have the skills and dispositions to work with adult learners, master content, effectively communicate, and engage in leadership roles. However, STEM teacher leaders must also be able to navigate within and outside of the K-12 system, skillfully engaging in external partnerships to strengthen the STEM college and career pathways (e.g., with business, higher education, nonprofits). They may need to have expertise in integrating instruction across the STEM content areas and with reading, art, and other humanities. Administrators may want STEM teacher leaders to be adept at particular instructional methods (e.g., inquiry, problem-based learning, career pathways, and work-based learning), and they may need to be knowledgeable of “non-cognitive skills” (e.g., critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, learning mindsets).

Specify the Role and Responsibilities of the STEM Teacher Leader

“An effective STEM teacher leader is not a disseminator of articles, resources, etc. To have effective STEM implementation, STEM teacher leaders must have the ability to be in classrooms…, providing model lessons, team-teaching, planning, and coaching teachers on best practices that will impact instruction and, ultimately, student achievement.” STEM teacher leader

As the plan for the STEM teacher leadership model takes shape, administrators can clearly and formally describe the specific roles and responsibilities of the STEM teacher leaders. They can establish a shared understanding of the STEM teacher leader function within the context of other roles and the broader educational enterprise. The STEM teacher leader role and responsibilities can be tightly aligned with the school and/or district’s vision for STEM education and STEM teacher leadership.

STEM teacher leader, they can consider:

  • Defining the STEM teacher leader position can be more than an activity required for hiring purposes. The job description can be developed with input from stakeholders to ensure consensus. It can also be explicitly aligned with the school and/or district’s vision for STEM education and for STEM teacher leadership, and make clear what is and what is NOT expected in the role, with care to not overburden the role and risk core functions being pushed aside. It may even make sense to specify the proportion of time that should be dedicated toward core functions like teaching STEM courses.
  • In districts with a districtwide STEM teacher leader effort, the role may be tailored for individual schools based on their needs and contexts. It also may be tailored based on the skills of the individuals hired into the position to optimize their strengths.
  • An accessible, public description of the STEM teacher leader position can be developed to communicate with stakeholders. Teachers will need to clearly understand what the role is and how it will affect their work. It will also be important that partner organizations understand the role because, in some cases, the STEM teacher leader may be the point-of-contact with STEM-related partners. Likewise, students, parents, and other community members should understand the role. All of these stakeholders should see the connection between the STEM teacher leader position and the school and/or district’s STEM education plan.
  • The STEM teacher leader role and responsibilities can be formally revisited and revised as one would with any new program, particularly in the first year or two. Analyzing measures of progress and effectiveness can facilitate this process.

Possible Roles and Responsibilities of STEM Teacher Leaders

As an illustration, STEM teacher leader roles and responsibilities may include:

  • Providing formal mentoring and coaching to colleagues
  • Managing and delivering professional development
  • Serving on district leadership teams and regularly providing input into change initiatives
  • Developing professional learning opportunities with districtlevel leaders
  • Serving as state-level committee members (such as a Science Committee or Assessment workgroup)
  • Being responsible for assessing the need for STEM programs, developing programs, and working in tandem with other leaders to implement and support programs
  • Leading work with partners who can contribute programming and learning opportunities, including higher education, industry groups, out-of-school-time program, etc.
  • Leading work with industry to bridge the gap between K-12 and industry
  • Serving as policy advisors for STEM initiatives at the local, state, and national levels
  • Working with district leadership teams and campus leadership teams to develop vertically and horizontally aligned STEM programming

Hire and Retain the STEM Teacher Leaders

Administrators can be strategic in recruiting and retaining STEM teacher leaders.

Recruitment considerations. A new and relatively unique position like STEM teacher leader may warrant consideration of external as well as internal candidates. Assess the tradeoffs and benefits of bringing in outside expertise, with attention to the specific capacities required of the job. Also consider whether or not preference will be given for teachers who see themselves on an administrator career track, as some aspiring administrators may not have the needed capacities. As part of recruitment, the district’s vision of the STEM teacher leader role and STEM education can be shared in detail and for discussion.

Selection considerations. As part of the selection process, it may make sense to specifically include STEM teachers and other teacher leaders from the district on the hiring team. Because this is a new position, particular attention can be paid to developing a process and criteria that will illuminate the needed capacities. Interviews can also elicit the candidate’s vision for the position, since the position itself may still be a work in progress.

Selection criteria. Administrators can consider the following criteria for selecting STEM teacher leaders:

  • Evidence of sustained positive impact on student achievement in a STEM area (e.g., five years of student growth or evidence of narrowing achievement gaps)
  • Evidence of effective leadership, including with fellow teachers
  • Strong adult learning and mentoring skills
  • Strong communication skills
  • Strong interpersonal skills and the ability to motivate and empower others
  • Ability to take the initiative in developing programs and changing organizational thinking
  • Ability to work with multiple types of stakeholders, including teachers, school and district administrators, students, and external partners
  • Strong academic background and passion for one or more STEM disciplines
  • Deep knowledge of instructional methods and non-cognitive skills relevant to the organization’s vision of STEM education and STEM teacher leadership

Retention considerations. To align with key drivers in attracting and retaining talent, districts can focus on providing STEM teacher leaders with experiences that broaden their skillsets and offer them opportunities for career advancement. Consider developing a plan for STEM teacher leader professional development, and look to address their professional aspirations and interests for the near and distant future.