Skip to main content

Support Networks for STEM Teachers Can Improve Retention

Noyce alumni sit in a row on stage as part of a panel
Noyce program alumni take part in the “Voices From the Field” panel. | Colella Digital

Ensuring that current and future teachers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have strong support networks emerged as an important strategy for retaining well-trained educators in school districts most in need of them, according to presenters and attendees of the 2019 Noyce Summit.

The Noyce Summit, co-hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s STEM Education Program and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, brought together educators, researchers and administrators to explore the goal of retaining STEM teachers in classrooms and identify how teacher preparation programs can best prepare teachers for the challenges of the classroom.

The importance of community and support networks for educators was a message delivered by numerous summit presenters and participants, including early-career teachers, researchers sharing their findings to improve teacher retention and summit attendees reflecting on the importance of the Noyce community.

The summit is the annual gathering of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which encourages individuals studying STEM or working in STEM professions to become elementary, middle and high school STEM teachers. The nationwide program provides funding to researchers studying science education, teacher recruitment and retention. It also provides scholarships and fellowships to experienced “master” teachers and to STEM majors who commit to teaching in high-needs school districts – those with a high percentage of students from families living below the poverty line, elevated teacher turnover rates and high rates of untrained teachers.

“My life changed forever by empowered teachers,” said Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and head of the SEA Change program, during the July summit, emphasizing the impact that well-trained, motivated teachers can have on their students.

No single tactic will solve STEM teacher retention, Malcom noted, in keeping with the summit’s agenda that explored the issue from many angles. Noyce Summit attendees shared their findings and experiences in 65 workshops on educational practices and subjects ranging from field experience to culturally relevant teaching. The agenda also included presentations of more than 170 posters highlighting the research of Noyce funding recipients and small-group discussions centered on the summit’s theme and numerous networking opportunities. One new event was a speed-dating-inspired opportunity called Speed STEMming for Noyce scholars and fellows to connect with 20 different organizations offering curriculum and professional development resources.

Among the five plenaries was the perennially popular and relevant “Voices from the Field” panel, which brings together Noyce alumni early in their teaching careers to discuss the challenges and successes of early-career STEM teachers.

Teachers emphasized the importance of having their own support networks as they strive to encourage their students. Jonathan Isozaki, a graduate of Loyola Marymount University teaching high school mathematics in California, recounted the best advice he received as a novice teacher: “Find that support system.”

Panelists noted that such networks have been important in dealing with the issues they have faced while teaching in high-need schools, including carrying a heavy workload as the school’s only science teacher, instructing students who are several grade levels behind in STEM and supporting students in communities where drug and alcohol abuse and suicide are common.

The panelists also shared what they wished had been a part of their teacher training programs to better address challenges they have faced. Jamie McDonald, a graduate of Bridgewater State University and an elementary school STEM teacher in Massachusetts, said trauma training would be a useful addition to teacher training curricula to understand how trauma can negatively affect students and their ability to learn. Isozaki said he wished he had been instructed in classroom management techniques. “Without it, you can’t teach your subject,” he said.

The subject of support systems also emerged at another plenary in which Noyce-funded researchers shared their findings on teacher preparation programs that could determine whether a first-year teacher stays on for a second year and beyond.

Meltem Alemdar, associate director and senior research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing, has studied teachers’ personal networks and the effects they have on teacher retention. She found that teachers whose support network includes others who work in education are more likely to remain in the profession.

Alemdar has also focused on the concept of self-efficacy – belief in one’s own ability to succeed in a given situation – which can be bolstered by a strong social network. Receiving constructive feedback as part of a teacher preparation program “always boosts my confidence,” she reports one participant in her study saying.

Attendees of the Noyce Summit also reported that the summit itself serves as a space for support and inspiration. The summit is “a really valuable opportunity to connect with other people who run similar types of programs to see what kind of innovations they are implementing,” said Ed Himelblau, professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and primary investigator on a Noyce grant to research the recruitment of STEM majors into teaching.

Noyce Summit attendee Amy Wagler, associate professor of mathematical sciences at University of Texas El Paso and a primary investigator of a Noyce-funded study to analyze the social networks of novice STEM teachers, affirmed the importance of connection among professionals. New teachers are frequently in a “sink or swim” situation, Wagler said, and their ability to cope depends strongly on the people with whom they can talk about their work. Referring to the Noyce community, Wagler said, “Now I have my own support network.”

[Associated image: Colella Digital]


Andrea Korte