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What strategies can be used when developing or strengthening teacher preparation programs that promote STEM teacher leadership?

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 consider these strategic actions to promote STEM teacher leadership:

Make STEM leadership development an explicit program goal

While perhaps an obvious step, programs that seek to develop STEM leadership need to make it a goal that drives program design and is explicitly communicated to preservice teachers throughout the program. When a program has a long-term goal of developing teacher leaders, one would expect program completers to enter the workforce knowledgeable about leadership roles and how they can pursue them. One would also expect completers to have thought about their career goals and to be motivated to take on leadership. Programs interested in STEM teacher leadership can go through formal goal-setting exercises that involve organizational discussions about the reasons for the goal and implications for program design. Programs may want to get the input from district and school representatives, including STEM teacher leaders, and possibly develop K-12 partnerships.

As an example, one program focused on STEM educators’ dual identity as an educator and a STEM-related researcher or practitioner. STEM teachers and teacher leaders can develop capacities and see themselves differently through opportunities for scientific research, technology use, and engineering projects. These experiences can help them teach and lead in the STEM disciplines, and this program worked hard to cultivate a dual identity in their participants.

Development of STEM leadership, however, must be built on a solid foundation; programs need to uphold the highest pedagogical and content standards for preservice teachers and for themselves. Unless they are well-prepared for future success as a beginning teacher, preservice candidates may experience difficulty developing their leadership capacity once they enter the classroom.

Align program efforts with existing STEM-education standards, research, and best practices

Given the complexity of STEM teacher leadership development, programs have leveraged research findings and professional standards to better frame and strengthen their work. One program, whose focus is on preservice through year five, created a continuum of experiences that culminated with participants applying for National Board Certification. During their preservice training, program participants experienced a formal process that supported and prepared them for their later work with National Board Certification. In a similar fashion, other programs utilized evaluation protocols and professional standards that focused on STEM teacher leadership during their preparation experiences.

Forge connections with local schools/districts and mentor teachers

Programs need to forge strong connections with local schools and K-12 personnel that can enable engagement in STEM teacher leadership.

Clinical experiences. It is important that preservice teachers complete clinical experiences in an environment that helps to build the foundation for STEM teacher leadership. Having mentor teachers on a STEM leadership trajectory provides preservice teachers with powerful role models and a vision of what teacher leadership entails. These connections can also give the program a future pool of mentor teachers, program graduates who can provide valuable mentorship to current, preservice candidates.

Examples of career pathways. STEM teacher leadership development must be viewed as a continuum that builds from their preservice preparation through the beginning of their career. Strong connections with local school districts can be useful for highlighting growth trajectories of that preservice teachers can pursue, both as a part of their preservice preparation and as a part of mentoring as they begin their STEM teaching careers. For example, in one program the preservice teachers received mentoring from teachers that were program alumni and, as they began their careers, they and their mentors received release time for additional mentoring.

Supportive networks of alumni. Programs can be intentional in creating alumni networks to develop STEM teacher leaders. Mentoring available through networks can be a powerful tool for the development of STEM teacher leadership, particularly as successive cohorts of students can provide support for future cohorts. This support could take place within a school or district and in person, or it could take place across school contexts with virtual meetings. Members of a cohort develop their leadership skills as they prepare presentations for or provide mentoring. Creating a network of support that builds from preservice preparation through the initial years of their teaching careers can be a powerful engine for the development of STEM teacher leadership.

Collaboratively design opportunities for candidates to engage in STEM teacher leadership experiences

Teacher preparation programs, ideally in partnership with partner districts, can design meaningful opportunities for teaching candidates to engage in STEM teacher leadership experiences in the following ways.

Opportunities within the formal program experience. Programs can provide preservice teachers with opportunities to engage in leadership experiences within their formal coursework and clinical experience. To do so, the program staff will need to identify feasible agreed-upon leadership development activities that can be incorporated into the program structure, without weakening the existing program. Faculty will need to be on board, and their input will be crucial for designing new program features that can be implemented and sustained effectively. Programs may want to develop a simple implementation plan that clarifies expected activities, roles, and indicators for assessment of the effort.

These STEM teacher leadership experiences do not need to be time-consuming activities. For example, preservice teachers might facilitate discussions with fellow students on a current issue in STEM education or present/model an innovative approach to STEM teaching. Such an activity would serve dual purposes of increasing preservice teacher confidence as a STEM educator and imparting an expectation that they should share their knowledge with colleagues.

Opportunities outside of the formal program experience. Programs can promote STEM leadership experiences outside of formal coursework. For example, many programs have a student organization focusing on STEM education—a “student chapter” of a national organization such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics or the National Science Teachers Association in which preservice teachers can gain experience serving as an officer, organizing an event for other students in the program, giving a presentation at a meeting, or helping to organize a tutorial program for students at a high-needs school. Programs can encourage preservice teachers to present at a meeting of a local STEM education teacher association.

Links to other professional organizations outside of the teaching profession can also provide leadership opportunities. For example, STEM teacher candidates can be encouraged to join engineering or hard science professional societies, like the Society of Women Engineers or the National Society of Black Engineers.

Collaboratively design opportunities for candidates to reflect on their trajectory as STEM teacher leaders

Programs can also incorporate reflection activities that explicitly focus on leadership development. For example, they can include various scales designed to assess one’s leadership style and can help preservice teachers to reflect on how they could function more effectively as a leader. As a second example, one program included strategic planning for leadership as a part of the seminar that accompanied the final full-time student teaching experience. The preservice teachers were asked to propose goals to be accomplished in their first, fifth, and 10th year of teaching, as well as actions they might take to attain these goals. This reflection helped them to better visualize what a leadership development trajectory might entail.

Leverage STEM-teaching alumni networks

Program alumni are a valuable asset, as they can act as mentors, success stories, even cheerleaders. While engaging alumni can be challenging, programs made it clear that alumni were an important component of success.

A common strategy for leveraging alumni involves mentorship. One fellowship program had been very intentional about incorporating alumni engagement into their program model: in their words, “each cohort supports later cohorts.” The program worked hard to build connections between cohorts, pairing each new fellow with a “buddy” from a previous cohort who provided support. The program also trained senior fellows to serve as peer coaches during summer workshops, mentoring new fellows.<

Another program developed an induction program that connected new program alumni in their first year of teaching with more experienced alumni serving as mentor teachers. The mentor teachers worked with the new teachers to assist them with transitioning into the classroom, and cultivating the professional growth mindset necessary to become a teacher leader. Other programs spoke of ad hoc alumni engagement, such as social media connections between program cohorts. Those programs acknowledged the importance of such connections, and were working to incorporate those connections in a more systematic fashion.

Incorporate a programmatic culture of data collection and continuous improvement

Teacher preparation programs can commit to collecting data on program outcomes and using that data to constantly improve their practice. Program outcomes need not be focused narrowly on STEM-related issues, but programs can be explicit in monitoring and improving outcomes for STEM teachers and teacher leadership.

While data types vary as a function of a specific program’s context and goals (see Evaluation of Teacher Leadership Programs), consider these data sources:

  • Job placement information for STEM teacher candidates (e.g., school type, location, student population)
  • Credentialing information
  • Retention information for program alumni
  • Hiring information for program alumni in STEM teacher leadership (and other leadership) positions
  • Program exit surveys
  • In-service surveys of program alumni (e.g., self-reported pedagogical strategies, leadership activities)
  • Teacher performance information (e.g., self-reported pedagogy, student performance information)
  • Alumni recognition and awards

Teacher preparation programs can also have used other sources of data, including student evaluations of program alumni, classroom observations of program alumni (to assess pedagogical strategies), social network analyses of program alumni, National Board Certification information, and attendance at regional/national conferences of groups like the National Science Teachers Association or the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Programs reported challenges associated with keeping track of alumni, which can complicate the data collection process.