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How can elementary STEM teacher leaders overcome common barriers to support elementary STEM learning?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

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


Some promising practices to strengthen teachers’ STEM content knowledge and to provide support for changing instructional practices include:

Advocacy to provide consistent support for elementary STEM instruction

Consistent support is essential for elementary STEM teachers to build both content and pedagogical knowledge for effective STEM education. Teacher leadership programs can generate support for STEM teacher leaders by advocating for STEM education.

In one example, teacher leaders were explicitly taught to how to showcase STEM. The program worked with teacher leaders to develop an “elevator pitch,” with a goal of being ready to advocate for STEM education at any opportunity. Teachers were also provided with guidance on how to reach out to state representatives, invite them to their classrooms, and make the most of the opportunity once representatives had observed STEM instruction in action.

STEM advocacy doesn’t always need to be high-level: in another program, STEM culture was built at the district and school level, rather than at the state level. The STEM teacher leader program staff encouraged teachers to build a STEM culture in partnership with their administrators and created a network for these teacher leaders to help develop a district-wide STEM culture.

District and school structural supports to enable teaching STEM subject areas at the elementary level

Specific district and school structural supports are necessary to develop teachers’ STEM content and instructional capacities. Examples of school structural supports for STEM teacher leadership include:

  • Developing a STEM action plan to establish essential and consistent school and classroom supports districtwide, including building teacher capacity
  • Creating administrative structures that ensure support and advocacy for improving STEM content and pedagogical knowledge at elementary schools. For instance, including administrators in the leadership development program as full participants so that they understand the program and can act as a liaison with other administrators
  • Establishing structures throughout classrooms, schools, the district and even the region or state, to support authentic teacher collaboration, such as forming cross-disciplinary integrated STEM teams that work across grade levels. Such collaboration is particularly beneficial for primary grade STEM instruction, since lower grades tend to receive less attention and instructional support in STEM than intermediate grades do
  • Using STEM coaches to provide teachers with necessary support to change instructional strategies and build STEM content knowledge
  • Partnering elementary teachers with middle and high school STEM teachers to support STEM content knowledge and build understanding for the K-12 continuum in STEM learning
  • Establishing a mentoring program in which teacher leaders mentor other teachers
  • Identifying and embedding other school initiatives that are consistent with and support effective STEM education such as thinking strategies, habits of mind, and growth mindset

One program built STEM instructional support at the school level by providing content-based professional development for STEM teacher leaders. These teacher leaders remained in instructional roles in their schools, partnered with classroom teachers to share their content knowledge, and provided instructional support. Additionally, the teacher leaders brought new initiatives to their schools, secured grants for materials, and created partnerships between their schools and industry, all of which created a STEM culture and supported other STEM teachers’ efforts.

Another program supported STEM teachers across the district with STEM coaches who were chosen for their ability to lead adults and for their strong content knowledge. These coaches encouraged hands-on STEM labs, supported the development of fellow teachers’ content knowledge, collaborated on lesson planning, and helped bring cutting-edge materials into the classroom. The flexibility of the role also gave the coaches opportunities to engage in professional development opportunities to learn about STEM innovations.

Effective professional learning to enhance elementary teachers’ knowledge of STEM instruction

Professional learning that develops elementary teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge of effective STEM education has features such as:

  • Sustained professional learning experiences that combine content learning with development of instructional strategies
  • Virtual collaboration networks that let participants confer and reflect on implementing new strategies, sharing resources, and deepening content understanding
  • Structured professional learning experiences for teachers to engage in practices consistent with the practices of STEM professionals to increase teachers’ STEM knowledge
  • Response to teacher-driven needs

For example, one two-year program focused heavily on developing teacher leaders’ instructional practice in the first year and developing their leadership skills during the second year. When learning about instructional practices, the teacher leaders participated as learners so that they experienced the content as their students do, and then they debriefed on the learning experience. This process resulted in educators having a deeper understanding of the content they were teaching as well increasing their understanding of multiple ways to solve the particular challenge they worked on with their colleagues. The leadership training in the second year included role-playing scenarios that focused on coaching and establishing relationships within the school building. For instance, teacher leaders practiced what they might say to teachers who were resistant to change. Teacher leaders also received coaching on different aspects of strategic planning such as using a conceptual flow diagram to evaluate their current curricula and infuse it with more STEM content. They also helped develop STEM action plans for their districts. Ultimately, this training and the program’s policy of embedding these teachers in their school leadership teams gave these teachers the opportunity to build leadership skills and to support their school administrations. This capacity influenced the district’s goal to have all its elementary schools offer more standardized, high-quality STEM education than they could have otherwise.

Effective supports to bolster elementary teachers’ confidence in teaching STEM subjects

Programs supporting elementary STEM teacher leaders can often face elementary teachers’ insecurities about being successful STEM educators. This insecurity is sometimes mirrored in industry partners’ perceptions of elementary teachers. Program strategies to mitigate teachers’ self-doubts and industry partners’ concerns about elementary educators’ STEM proficiency, include:

  • Recognizing and rewarding risk-takers
  • Developing a culture of “shared responsibility and chosen accountability”
  • Building industry partners’ confidence in elementary teachers by showcasing exemplary elementary educators’ STEM work
  • Intentionally developing a cadre of STEM leaders in the district who inspire pedagogical change and generate genuine interest in deepening content knowledge

In one program, teacher leader fellows learned to emphasize the importance of risk-taking in STEM education and reward this tendency in their colleagues. At the same time, these fellows co-planned science lessons with other teachers, which helped their colleagues to develop content knowledge and grow more comfortable experimenting with STEM instruction.

Another initiative focused its efforts on developing leadership capabilities in STEM teachers, who were then poised to co-teach, co-plan, model lessons for their peers, and spread best practices, such as encouraging teachers to share both successful and unsuccessful attempts at using technology in instruction. These revelations ensured continued dialogue around STEM education and fostered a culture where it was OK to experiment and make mistakes.