Anyone with a passion for teaching can become a STEM leader. Presenting STEM in a way that truly engages learners is a difficult but rewarding task.
Obstacles are common in any career and they definitely appear in STEM leadership as well. Sometimes, a teacher’s own discomfort with a subject matter can stand in the way of efficiently explaining it to others. Math anxiety, for example, is a common phenomenon that can occur in students and STEM leaders alike. Symptoms include a loss of self-confidence, sweaty palms, and number-related uneasiness.
Limited time and resources can make STEM learning and training a challenge. Large classes can present difficulties by making it impossible to consistently interact with every student individually. Lack of expertise in STEM leadership can also act as a barrier in helping students to develop their own skills. STEM encompasses a broad range of potential subjects, and it’s rare for anyone to be able to speak as an expert on all of them. When teachers feel weak in a particular STEM subject, they are less likely to consider themselves STEM leaders.
Luckily, there are many ways to overcome these issues and become a more effective STEM leader.
Accept and address your own math anxiety.
It’s ok to admit that math causes you some stress. Stop looking at math as a set of rules and formulas to memorize, and instead think of math as a tool that helps you see relationships between things. Start looking at math conceptually, and think about why the formulas and theorems you’re teaching actually work. Once you get the conceptual understanding down, the formulas will make sense and you will be able to wield them with confidence. Going through this process will also help you empathize with and assist students who are struggling with their own math anxiety.
Feel comfortable saying “I don’t know.”
As teachers, we often feel that we should have all the answers and be the fount of all knowledge. In reality, we should be learning from our students every day and modeling what to do when you don’t know something. Teachers should be examples of life-long learning in action, and what better way to set that example for our students than by saying “I don’t know – let’s find out together” in your classroom.
Reach across the hall.
One way to extend your STEM knowledge and build confidence is to reach out to a colleague when you’re struggling to understand a concept in a related STEM field. Sometimes teachers feel silly or weak when they have to ask for help, but this is actually a great way to build relationships with the educators around you. Your colleagues will feel more comfortable coming to you for help once they see that you are accessible and willing to learn from them.
Reach across town.
Finding a professional partner in a real-life STEM field can be incredibly powerful for both you and your students. It may take some time to find the right person, but having a trusted partner to use as a resource for you and as an example of when STEM skills are used in the real world can be very effective for your students. Start by establishing goals for this professional partnership. Think about the possible benefits for you as a teacher, you as a STEM leader, your students, and the STEM professional. After your goals are established, reach out to various STEM companies in and around your community. Once you find a few willing candidates, exchange emails, phone calls, and even video calls to decide which professional would be the best fit. Start learning from each other and invite them into your classroom to speak with your students about what they do and how they use STEM skills every day.
Make your classroom student-centered.
Most teachers feel at ease lecturing their students from the front of the classroom and expecting their students to absorb the appropriate information. Teacher leaders, however, see their roles in the classroom a little bit differently. Most STEM leaders find it is more effective to use project-based learning and other student-centered approaches, and see their role as being a resource for students to use when they get stuck or disagree about how to proceed. This teacher-as-a-guide mentality allows students to become more independent learners and helps them to re-engage with STEM subjects. It also allows teachers to get away from lecturing and get back to what they love to do – teaching.
Show that STEM requires creativity.
Students often disengage from STEM subjects because they think they are boring or too difficult. Show students how math, science, technology, and engineering connect to other areas of life. Cross-disciplinary collaboration can help introduce concepts to a very diverse group of learners. By incorporating elements of art or music, for instance, students may be able to grasp the material in a way that’s more accessible to their individual learning style. Bringing creativity into your math class may help re-engage those students who always thought that math just wasn’t for them.
Want more resources on how to foster STEM leadership? Learn about taking your classroom from STEM to STEAM to get students excited about coming to your class every day and become a trend-setter in your building.