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What district and school conditions can strengthen implementation of STEM teacher leadership?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

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


Schools and districts can set conditions that support the design, implementation, and improvement of their STEM teacher leadership programs. Administrators can consider whether they should initiate or nurture the below conditions for program success:

Capacity to articulate the need for STEM teacher leaders

One of the most important steps in developing a STEM teacher leadership program is to first articulate the specific needs for such a position and then determine the resources that will be needed (see What might administrators consider when assessing need and feasibility for STEM teacher leadership for their schools?). Whether looking at curriculum or instructional practices, district stakeholders will need to determine the STEM-related needs of their students and teachers, and investigate various strategies to meet those needs. Administrators can then balance strategies against each other and against the associated costs (e.g., salary, impact on class sizes, taking a good teacher out of the classroom).

Commitment to a vision of STEM education and STEM teacher Leaders

Districts and schools with a clear vision of STEM education and STEM teacher leadership will have an easier time initiating a STEM teacher leader effort. Even if this vision is not clearly defined at first, STEM teacher leadership implementation will benefit if the district and school are committed to developing and adhering to a vision. STEM teacher leaders can help schools and districts to build or refine a STEM education vision once they are in the position. Regardless of the order in which you establish a vision, school and/or district stakeholders are encouraged to adequately support and structure a process to define what their vision is for STEM education and then articulate how a STEM teacher leader can help achieve that goal (see How can STEM teacher leadership benefit my school and the work of administrators?). In committing to a vision for STEM education and STEM teacher leadership, districts and school can set priorities and processes that promote consistent implementation that lead toward specified goals. Schools and districts can plan how they will manage and communicate about the effort.

When committing to a vision, consider how the district and/or school can support the growth of teachers into future STEM leaders. A strong STEM education and teacher leader program will include opportunities for all STEM teachers to develop expertise. Future STEM leaders can be groomed and given the opportunity to emerge, such as through professional development, involvement in decision-making, informal leadership experiences, and collaborative work with peers. The pipeline for STEM leadership begins as early as pre-service preparation and continues throughout teacher careers.

Capacity to define and evaluate expectations for STEM teacher leaders

While communication of the “big picture” vision is critical to program success, defining daily and yearly expectations of the STEM teacher leaders is just as important (see What support structures can help STEM teacher leaders do their job effectively?). Selected STEM teacher leaders need to have a mutually agreed upon job description that clearly outlines what they will be expected to accomplish, what resources will be allocated to them, and how they will be evaluated. Administrators may want to co-develop these job descriptions with key stakeholders (e.g., teachers, district unit leaders, external partners) to reduce miscommunication and give goal ownership to both classroom teachers and STEM teacher leaders.

The school or district should also be prepared to tailor their staff evaluation systems for STEM teacher leaders. Because this position may be new and has responsibilities that are STEM-specific and different from most teaching staff, the evaluation criteria will likely be different than for other teachers. Supervisors may need training on the evaluation of this position. By developing specific evaluation criteria and performance indicators (based on STEM teacher leader job expectations), the district will be more likely to have an appraisal system that provides useful feedback to individual STEM teacher leaders as well as for the model’s continuous improvement.

Flexibility in STEM teacher leader schedules

Flexible scheduling for STEM teachers leaders can play a major role in program effectiveness. In models where STEM teacher leaders had a rigid schedule (i.e., full teaching load, only available certain times of the day or week), STEM teacher leaders struggled to have an impact on improving the daily instructional practices of other teachers. STEM teacher leaders are more likely to drive instructional change when they have schedules that enable them to co-teach lessons, lead embedded professional development, and meet with individuals or groups of teachers to discuss data, instructional practice, and curricula.

Empowerment of STEM teacher leaders

For STEM teacher leaders to be effective, they need clear expectations—and the room and freedom to achieve. One principal termed it, “Lead with Intent.” Let STEM teacher leaders know what the vision and goals are, but then give them the autonomy and resources to achieve those goals. In models where STEM teacher leaders were micromanaged, they were less inclined to achieve goals compared to those who were given the space to experiment with new instructional strategies (see What might administrators consider when initiating a new effort in STEM teacher leadership?).

Existence of supportive community partnerships

Many successful STEM programs find a way to partner with STEM leaders in the community to create authentic learning experiences for children. Forming and sustaining these connections, however, can be challenging for teachers and principals. STEM teacher leaders can facilitate and maintain community connections between industry, higher education, and the K-12 school(s). While flexible scheduling creates a supporting environment for this work, STEM teacher leaders may need additional support on how to cultivate these partnerships. One suggestion from a successful program was to survey all the students on where their parents are employed. From this list, STEM teacher leaders can reach out to local STEM professionals who also had a vested interest in the success of the school. Also having STEM teacher leaders sit on district- or state-level committees for community outreach and partnerships is a good way of building and sustaining these connections.

Capacity to plan for sustainability

Sustainability of STEM teacher leaders may vary quite a bit depending on the financial stability of the school district. While some districts have looked for federal and local grants to help develop and sustain these positions, other districts have made it a part of their annual budget process (see What might administrators consider when evaluating and sustaining a STEM teacher leader program?). At the core of a plan for sustaining STEM teacher leadership is a belief in the importance of STEM teacher leaders to achieve district and building goals. A STEM teacher leader redefines what we have commonly identified as a full-time teacher. They are leading professional learning communities, providing Tier III supports to struggling learners, researching best practices, advising teachers and administrators on how to take STEM education to the next level, and bridging the communication gap that exists between K-12, higher education, and industry. Sustainability will largely depend on whether STEM teacher leaders are viewed as a priority for improving teaching and learning.