What makes a STEM teacher? Developing identities of STEM teachers at emerging STEM schools

What kind of picture of a STEM teacher do you have? El Nagdi and colleagues attempted to answer this question by conducting a study with participants of emerging STEM schools in the US, published in the International Journal of STEM Education. Since STEM schools are a recent initiative, a STEM teacher is a learning, developing and multi-disciplinary-oriented not yet defined kind of person.

Identities are evolving

The ever-changing education policies, approaches, students’ behavior and community aspirations regarding teaching and teachers have caused a perpetual change in teacher identity. One of these current movements is the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Teachers working in STEM schools have to grapple with the different orientation, tasks, and requirements in and out of school to facilitate students’ learning in a STEM setting. Coping with this approach to teaching and learning has created a need for teachers with a different mindset and characteristics. This is required to cope with the lofty vision of STEM education as an integrated curriculum framework that addresses not only the standards but link whatever students have and do in their schools to the outside world in order to find solutions to society’s problems and prepare citizens with innovative, critical, and communicative mindsets. The idea of exploring STEM teacher identity was intriguing to us; we explored the question of what makes a STEM teacher and what STEM teachers identify as basic qualities of working or prospective STEM teachers. We designed this study so that we could explore teachers’ input regarding STEM teachers’ roles and identity issues especially at emerging or newly built STEM schools or schools that are in the first stages (first 2 years) of their journey to adopt integrated STEM curricula.

The idea of exploring STEM teacher identity was intriguing to us; we explored the question of what makes a STEM teacher …

A teacher’s identity is unstable by nature

Teacher identity is “unstable” by nature due to social and personal factors that continuously impact teachers’ views of themselves and their roles. It is always an outcome of the interaction of these personal and professional factors. With this conception in mind, we explored how the teachers in two emerging STEM schools identify themselves and understand their roles. Teachers were shown to have been undergoing a transition stage in their career. Though most of them had considerable teaching experiences, they viewed themselves as “developing” and/or “emerging” STEM teachers. While stressing the perspective that STEM is larger in scope and more comprehensive than each individual subject, they still cling to their individual identities as teachers of stand-alone subjects like science, social studies, mathematics which is corresponding with another possible feature of teacher identity; multiple identities. This identity multiplicity reflects the transition stage and possible internal struggle between the comfort zone of the individual subjects and the fluid state of the STEM setting where teachers are required to be ready to do more tasks; think creatively, openly, and collaboratively; and have the mindset of the learner rather than the “sage on the stage”.

Developing a STEM teacher’s identity is more like a marathon than a sprint where a lot has to be done in the process towards being identified as a STEM teacher.

A trans- or multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning

The results of this study confirm the assumptions of teacher identity prevalent in the literature. The study has some implications regarding the professional growth STEM teachers require to establish their STEM identity, the roles of leaders in STEM schools and the nature of the teacher preparation programs to prepare STEM teachers or teachers to work in STEM schools.

… [T]eachers are aspiring for a more distributed, albeit collaborative model where all are planning and implementing an integrated STEM curriculum based on an overarching theme that require a trans- or multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning.

Developing a STEM teacher’s identity is more like a marathon than a sprint where a lot has to be done in the process towards being identified as a STEM teacher. This does not denote a tendency towards a “one teacher for all” model. On the contrary, teachers are aspiring for a more distributed, albeit collaborative model where all are planning and implementing an integrated STEM curriculum based on an overarching theme that require a trans- or multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning.

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