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How can teacher preparation programs support STEM teacher leader pathways and the development of STEM teacher leaders?

Building STEM Teacher Leadership

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


Teacher preparation programs can support their students on a pathway toward STEM teacher leadership in a variety of ways, including:

Teacher preparation programs support STEM teacher leader pathways and development of STEM teacher leadership

Exposing candidates to a variety of STEM teacher leader roles

Preservice teaching candidates often have a limited perspective on the variety of leadership roles that STEM teachers can take. Their focus is rightfully on preparing for success as a new teacher, and preservice clinical experiences expose them only to STEM teacher leader roles that exist at their placement schools and districts. Yet teachers can lead in STEM education in a wide range of formal and informal ways and teaching candidates could benefit from additional exposure (see What are potential roles of a STEM teacher leader? and How do programs approach elementary STEM teacher leadership?).

Exposure to breadth of roles. Teacher preparation programs can expose candidates to the breadth of STEM leadership roles and capacities, possibly through explicit instruction and activities, and through mentorship or through additional clinical experiences. This exposure can give candidates a foundational understanding of the diverse possibilities for their own career path, and help them understand how STEM teacher leadership can fit into systems of STEM education and policy. For instance, preparation programs can provide examples of teacher leader roles that are formal or informal, common in local districts or common elsewhere, driven by the school or more self-directed.

Exposure to informal roles. Often, STEM teachers feel limited by the lack of formally defined leadership roles, but teachers—including new teachers—can exert influence in a variety of ways. In addition to formal teacher leadership roles like coach, department head, or teacher on special assignment, informal roles can involve facilitating a data team or professional learning community, planning events like science night, designing classroom formative assessment or instructional materials, or reviewing curricula and other resources that the school is considering.

Exposing candidates to career pathways that lead to STEM leadership

Teacher preparation programs can “bake into their program” a notion that their preservice candidates are on a career trajectory that extends past the first years of teaching and possibly toward STEM leadership. Programs can expose candidates to the career pathways taken by teachers who have had an impact on student learning, teacher practice, school improvement, and policy.

Exposure to real-life career pathway examples. These career pathways can include formal positions of leadership (e.g., department head, coach, curriculum specialist, administrator), but they can also include other types of capacities that might be less obvious (e.g., contribution to strategic planning, initiating a STEM program, and providing input to local or state policy). By bringing in STEM teacher leaders from the local community, teacher candidates can more fully visualize their own paths toward teacher leadership.

Planning a career pathway. Once a variety of options have been concretely presented, teacher preparation programs can help their preservice teachers reflect on career goals and map a pathway toward those goals. For example, one program has preservice candidates explicitly plan out where they want to be in 5 years, and again in 10, getting them to consider their personal leadership trajectories.

Having candidates learn from STEM teacher leaders

Teacher preparation programs can arrange for STEM teacher leaders to share knowledge and provide perspectives on a range of topics, including STEM content, successful STEM teaching strategies, K-12 contexts, and career development (see What are considerations in building a strong relationship between teacher preparation programs and districts that are focused on STEM teacher leadership?). STEM teacher leaders are able to provide advice grounded in current practice and school realities, and since they are further along in a career trajectory, their perspective may be informative for future teachers. STEM teacher leaders can contribute to STEM teacher preparation through:

  • Formal roles in teacher preparation programs
  • li>Career trajectory advice li>Practical, informed perspectives on STEM within current school systems

Formal roles in teacher preparation programs. STEM teacher leaders can have a range of roles in teacher preparation, including:

  • Presenting on discrete topics to candidates
  • Co-teaching preservice courses
  • Supervising clinical STEM teaching experiences,
  • Informing candidates of STEM leadership opportunities in local districts
  • Introducing and recruiting candidates to STEM networks (local, regional, national)

In addition to more formal roles (e.g., adjunct positions within the university/college system), STEM teacher leaders can take on informal roles (e.g., a brownbag speaker, school-based mentor, etc.).

Career trajectory advice. STEM teacher leaders can also be instrumental in helping candidates think through their own career goals and plans. They can provide real examples of STEM teacher leader roles, whether formal or informal, existing or prospective. STEM teacher leaders can also describe their own career pathway to help candidates reflect on their possible trajectories. The advice of STEM teacher leaders on candidate career plans can be useful because it can account for existing opportunities, resources, and constraints that are specific to the STEM areas.

Practical, informed perspectives on STEM within current school systems. STEM teacher leaders can have unique and valuable perspectives on how STEM programming fits into the broader education enterprise, particularly at the local and regional levels. They know the STEM subject curricula, course requirements, spoken and unspoken priorities, supports and resources for STEM programming (or lack thereof), and much more. They have seen first-hand the political and organizational contexts in which STEM teaching occurs in their schools and districts. STEM teacher leaders are likely to have grappled with realities that any aspiring STEM teacher or leader would need to engage with and therefore can play a helpful role in preparing novice STEM educators for the practical realities of STEM teaching.

Emphasizing the importance of STEM discipline knowledge as a component of STEM teacher leadership

STEM discipline expertise is an essential component for STEM teacher leadership and excellent teaching. At the core of being a STEM teacher leader is the capacity to be an instructional leader with a track record of student learning. As such, programs can help to prepare candidates and early career teachers to dive deeply into STEM-discipline content, instructional practice, and policy, so that they can promote STEM learning and confidently engage with others on STEM education. Advocacy on STEM-specific issues will be more difficult for those who lack STEM expertise, regardless of skills related to leadership, administration, or classroom management.

In addition, teacher preparation programs can imbue a sense of lifelong learning in STEM disciplines, especially important in preparing elementary STEM teachers whose exposure to some STEM-disciplines is often more limited that of secondary teachers.

As an example, one university-based program in California works with preservice candidates to help them develop the dual identity of teacher and scientific researcher. They give candidates experience working in a national laboratory setting and program graduates report having more confidence in their understanding of science.

Engaging candidates in emerging STEM teaching practices and education policy

By engaging candidates in emerging STEM practice and policy, teacher preparation programs can inform candidates on issues that will drive future STEM education efforts and prepare the candidates to lead the charge on improving STEM education. To do so, teacher preparation programs must be up-to-date on policies, as well as on their implications and current implementation within districts.

STEM education and policy continues to evolve, and future STEM teacher leaders—indeed STEM teachers in general—will need to understand the particulars to effectively contribute their voices. For instance, teacher candidates should presumably understand national standards for STEM subjects, along with related assessments. They have to understand the nuances of local policies and be able to examine local data to identify potential levers for change and improvement to participate in state, district, and school decisions that affect STEM teaching and learning.

STEM teacher preparation programs have an interest in seeing that candidates enter the workforce aware of influential policies and trends so that they are prepared to create change when they enter the classroom. Examples of policies and topics that can impact candidates’ future STEM teaching work include those related to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), workforce development, pre-Kindergarten and early education, STEM-focused schooling, blended learning, extended learning time, industry and community partnerships, student data privacy, and so on.

Establishing and supporting a community of STEM learners for graduates

Teacher candidates can benefit from engaging in a community of STEM learners after they graduate from the program and become teachers. Teacher preparation programs can consider how to establish and support a network for ongoing discussion and learning after program completion (see Building STEM Teacher Leader Networks). Network members can discuss experiences in leadership roles, opportunities for leadership, challenges, and strategies. More generally, discussion of STEM policies and practice within the network would help participants develop as professionals in ways that would support leadership. Even while “learning the ropes” in the first years of teaching, new teachers can benefit from keeping STEM teacher leadership opportunities in mind and reflecting on their own trajectories.

Providing information about programs and resources that support STEM leader development

With the help of teacher preparation programs, teacher candidates can complete preservice with a working understanding the various programs, resources, and other avenues that they can branch into to develop into STEM teacher leaders.

Connecting preservice graduates to supportive organizations and partners. New teachers have their hands full as they learn their craft, but those aspiring for STEM leadership can benefit if they know where to turn when they are ready to improve their STEM teaching and leadership skills. For instance, STEM teacher candidates can be introduced to local and national programs for teacher leaders, discipline-specific and generalist teacher associations, STEM networks and advocacy organizations, research and development opportunities, industry and community organizations that could be future partners, and so on.

Preservice program support for novice teachers. Some teacher preparation programs have formal or informal links to programming that help sitting teachers develop teacher leadership capacities. For instance, certain programs work with recent graduates after they transition into the classroom, with the intention of helping them move from new teacher toward expert and leader. Other programs are strategic in developing past graduates into mentor teachers who help to prepare future cohorts of candidates. One example program supported coherent experiences from preservice through the fifth year of teaching, working with programs and districts to create a career trajectory for engaged STEM educators.