Building Teacher Leader Capacity

May 18, 2024

Coordinating and supporting teachers across a whole district is a monumental task. Working to build teacher leader capacity can help distribute leadership, expertise, and responsibilities among the community of teachers in a district. In this tool, we provide some examples from Angela Stewart’s work at Davis School District in Utah. Angela has provided an outline of the first three years of her ongoing work to support teachers and establish distributed leadership capacity among teachers across her district (see stories below). The first year focused on developing relationships and laying the groundwork for AST. At the end of her second year, Angela applied for a grant to support professional learning, which provided funding for the ongoing work of a Science Leadership Team.

Developed by Angela Stewart, 7-12 Science and Engineering Supervisor, Davis School District


Year 1 Building Relationships

1st week – Nov – Teacher Directory

Teacher Directory Template

I started my role as the Secondary Science Supervisor in the Davis School District in the Fall of 2021. The first point of order was to get to know the science teachers. In the first week on the job, I created a Teacher Directory with each teacher’s picture, name, and the classes they taught. I used school websites to look up the science department and copied and pasted pictures into a document. I also emailed department chairs to find out the courses each teacher in the department taught and added that information to the document. I left space on each page to take notes about teachers and interactions with them. I made special note of their particular interests or if I found out about any difficulties they were encountering in life or work. 

It was important to build the directory myself. The creation of the directory provided an initial exposure to each teacher and their name. Space to write notes provided space for me to intentionally think about each teacher and develop a personal connection. As I met with teachers in person, I was able to draw on the connections I made to build a relationship with them. 

Relationships are foundational in creating a classroom culture that fosters equity. Recognizing each individual, knowing their name, and calling them by name helps individuals feel that they matter and are seen. Those in leadership positions should be good models of how to build relationships. It is imperative for teachers to build relationships with their students to create a culture of collaborative learning that centers student voice and experience.

Dec-Feb – In-Person Visits

Treat Survey & Amazon Ideas

With the teacher directory in hand, I geared up to go out and visit each teacher in their classroom. This was initially daunting and intimidating. I was worried about interrupting classroom instruction and more worried that teachers would perceive my visit as intrusive instead of supportive. 

To soften the intrusion, I decided to come bearing gifts. I wanted this to feel intentional and personal, so a few days prior to visiting a school, I sent a survey asking teachers to select from an option of treats. (The expenditure for treats did require approval from the department director, if limited on funds, a fun science sticker or pin is an affordable and fun option to take on introductory visits). Teachers could choose from a variety of cookies from a local bakery, a gluten-free treat, a protein bar, or let me know what treat would fit their dietary needs. On the day of visits, I picked up the treats and labeled each one with the teacher’s name. Writing each name helped me remember them better and provided an extra personal touch.

Another daunting aspect was visiting all 29 schools. I scheduled one or two days a week over the course of three months to visit clusters of schools. I planned based on school proximity to maximize time for the classroom visits. Overall, I found teachers to be appreciative of the effort, and it was a great way to begin establishing trusting and collaborative relationships.

Mar-May – Follow-up visits for support

After the initial visits with treats, I wanted to make sure I continued to build connections with the science teachers. I scheduled visits to classrooms as often as I could, couriered materials between schools, offered my time for collaboration and planning, and created opportunities to deliver more treats or prizes for teachers.

May & June – Entry point for AST

With relationships established, it was time to start building teachers’ professional capacity. In particular, I wanted to provide professional development that supported three-dimensional science pedagogical practices along with collaboration. Our state had adopted new science standards that were approved in 2019 and were expected to be adopted in classrooms during the 2020-2021 school year. The onset of the pandemic halted all training and PD efforts to introduce the new standards along with their three-dimensional shift. I needed to start small with the teachers and give them the opportunity to become familiar with a 3D approach in a simple way.

A previous science supervisor had developed an asynchronous book study course for Ambitious Science Teaching. In the course, teachers read sections of the book and respond to discussion prompts. The asynchronous course was a great entry point. By signing up for the course teachers received a copy of Ambitious Science Teaching, and upon completion of the course received a stipend. A number of teachers joined in and started their journey into Ambitious Science Teaching. This laid a foundation for future work. 

I was also able to provide an opportunity for summer collaboration. There was extra funding from a grant that was earmarked for teacher professional development and collaboration. Science teachers could be paid for the time they spent working together if they submitted a brief proposal about the collaborative work they wanted to do. Approximately fifty percent of science teachers took advantage of the opportunity, and some of the Science Leads were able to organize the work in a learning management system (Canvas) to be shared with the district science teachers.

June – Building shared purpose with Science Leadership

Throughout the first year, I coordinated with the Science Leadership team, a team of teachers that represent each content and grade level in secondary schools. There is a Science Lead for 7th-grade science, 8th-grade science, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physics, and Electives/Advanced Courses. The primary role of the Science Leadership team was to facilitate monthly district-wide collaborative meetings for teachers. In the first year, the Science Leadership Team facilitated collaboration sessions with a focus on the standards that they each chose for their grade level or content area. The feedback from teachers about the sessions varied widely. Some teachers felt they were really helpful, others not so much. 

As I met with the Science Leadership Team at the end of the first year, it became clear that we needed to have a shared vision and purpose in our work. We spent a day learning together about Ambitious Science Teaching and three-dimensional pedagogy with a professor from Weber State University. This time learning together helped us develop a better sense of what we wanted science education to look like in our district, and planted the seeds for ideas of how we could lead out with the teachers during collaboration time the following year.

Year 2 PCBL PLC – Focusing on support

July – Science Leadership Planning – Year 2 Begining of Year Agenda: Planning

Year 2 BOY Agenda_ Planning

At the end of summer and the beginning of my second year as the Secondary Science Supervisor, the Science Leadership Team met to plan for the coming school year. We wanted to better align our efforts across the different content areas and grade levels, and provide strategies that support three-dimensional pedagogies. As a team, we decided to focus on Science and Engineering Practices and how they can be used as scaffolding to support student learning. Each Science Lead would determine the most relevant practices for their content and support teachers in building their capacity for utilizing that practice in classroom instruction. The Science Leads heavily relied on Ambitious Science Teaching and the resources available on the AST website for the district collaboration meetings. Most beneficial were the resources that support modeling. 

One of my top priorities when planning for Science Leadership meetings is to allow for everyone’s voice to be heard. The playing field should be level and everyone should feel that they are an important part of the team. I like to plan around a table. I avoid sitting at the head of the table and try sitting off to the side to minimize the idea that I am the person in charge. 

When organizing the agendas, I lead with questions. I want the questions to focus our direction but also allow for open discussion on the topics. Again, this is to allow each of the members of the Leadership Team to have a voice and help us calibrate our shared vision together.

Aug-June – New state/district initiative Personalized Competency Based Learning Collaborating with Early Adopters

Personalized Competency-Based Learning

For the past few years, Utah’s State Board of Education has been working on developing a Framework for Personalized Competency-Based Learning. The Framework aims to empower student learning by providing opportunities for student voice, choice, and customized support as they work towards competency in essential standards. 

Our district teaching and learning department wanted to implement the PCBL framework as part of our district teaching model. Instead of throwing another initiative at the secondary science teachers, I wanted to show how the PCBL Framework aligns to the strategies that support three-dimensional science pedagogy. I selected two teachers, one high school and one junior high, that I know to be innovative in their classroom instruction. Both teachers are not afraid to try new things in their classrooms and willing to adjust quickly when something doesn’t work out. They also are strong leaders amongst their colleagues, respected for the work they do in and out of the classroom. All of these attributes were important when selecting early adopters, those who can take on the challenge of a new initiative with creativity and optimism and pave the path for other teachers to follow. Both teachers had also read Ambitious Science Teaching and were working to implement the strategies in their classrooms.  

We met as a small, collaborative team before school started. The goal I had in mind was to marry the framework provided in Ambitious Science Teaching with the principles of the PCBL Framework. We started by identifying essential standards and an anchoring phenomena that might be used for instruction of the standard. One of the first indicators for Culture of Learning in Utah’s PCBL Framework states, “Develop an aligned and collaborative strategic planning process that empowers each person to understand their role in achieving equitable outcomes for each learner.” This indicator aligns with Chapter 2 of Ambitious Science Teaching, “Planning for Engagement with Big Science Ideas.” The Ambitious Science Teaching Website has resources that support the work of planning for engagement:  Planning for Engagement with Big Science Ideas – the primer provides a strategic plan for teachers to utilize as they unpack standards and identify what students need to know, need to show, and how they might need to be supported in order to achieve mastery of concepts. The Planning for Engagement Tool is a template teachers can use to get started. 

In our first meeting together, we identified an anchoring phenomenon using the radium girls, a group of women who experience horrific symptoms after working in direct contact with radium in a watch factory. Using the biological effects of radium as the anchoring phenomenon, the unit engaged students in sensemaking around the structure and properties of atoms. Students used their newfound knowledge to eventually explain the experience of the radium girls. 

We tested the unit, made adjustments when needed, and as we collaborated, came to the conclusion that three-dimensional focused strategies are a perfect companion to the PCBL Framework. We shared our findings and experience at a district conference. One of the early adopters was also on the Science Leadership Team. The second early adopter joined the Science Leadership team at the end of the school. Both have been integral in supporting professional development opportunities for teachers in the district.

Jan- Mid-year Check-in Year 2 Middle of Year Agenda: Check-in

In January of the second year, we met as a Leadership Team to evaluate our current progress with the district collaboration time focused on implementing science and engineering practices. 

The leadership team expressed that the majority of teachers who participated found value in the collaboration. We also noted the importance of supporting new teachers and providing validation for them around the work they are doing.

One of the biggest takeaways from our meeting was the need for a curriculum that better supports three-dimensional pedagogy. The Leadership Team was very thoughtful in identifying that there are a lot of great science activities happening in district science classrooms, but what is missing is the relevant pedagogy and scaffolding for the implementation so that teachers know the why of what they are doing with instruction. We talked about the possibility of creating lesson templates for teachers to complete, and if there was funding available to support teacher work samples. We also noted the need for more three-dimensional experiences that could be developed into relevant storylines that address essential standards.

Feb-Mar- Grant Opportunity Grant Proposal

Grant Proposal

The STEM Action Center is a funding source for STEM education initiatives in Utah. They opened a funding cycle with a call for proposals in the Spring of 2023. The mid-year meeting with the Science Leadership team set the priorities for the goals of the professional learning grant:

  1. Increase student engagement in science classrooms by increasing student discourse around science concepts. 
  2. Identify and implement phenomena in classroom instruction that align with the qualities of good phenomena as outlined in Ambitious Science Teaching. 
  3. Collaborate with other science teachers to develop sense-making tasks that incorporate science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts. 

The plan for grant implementation was to take the three goals and focus on each one for two to three of nine district collaboration sessions that occur throughout the year. The Science Leadership team would develop the Professional Learning activities for each session. Between collaboration sessions, teachers would have time to implement strategies and reflect on the classroom implementation. Teachers would also be compensated for classroom sample lessons they developed on each of the topics. 

The grant proposal also incorporated funding to purchase licenses for a data collection app that teachers could use to evaluate and reflect on classroom implementation.

Mar – Inviting Melissa for PD

At the end of my second year as the Secondary Science Supervisor, the Elementary Science Supervisor and I, in collaboration with a professor at Weber State, invited Melissa to present professional learning sessions in our district. She spent three days with us and catered each day to a different demographic of teachers. Day one was for Kindergarten through second-grade teachers, day two for third through sixth-grade teachers, and day three for all secondary teachers. Approximately forty-five to sixty teachers participated each day. 

Melissa told the story of how Ambitious Science Teaching came to be and then guided teachers through learning sequences that utilized Ambitious Science Teaching resources and showed examples using clips from the video library. Because teachers could see the strategies in action, in classrooms with students and conditions that resembled typical challenges they’ve experienced in their own classrooms, the teachers could see that often they create their own barriers to implementing new strategies. Teachers came away from the sessions energized with new ideas and greater confidence in being able to successfully implement the changes.

Year 3 grant

Aug – Science Leadership Planning Year 3 Beginning of Year Agenda: Adjusting the Plan

Year 3 BOY Agenda

The summer prior to my third year as the Secondary Science Supervisor, my grant proposal was funded, but the district had made the decision to eliminate district collaboration time in favor of giving it back to principals and schools. The proposal had been written with the intent of utilizing district collaboration time, and so we needed to make adjustments. I pulled together my Science Leadership Team and drew upon their expertise to develop a solution. 

We decided to shift the professional learning opportunity into three, two-hour, in-person sessions and three one-hour virtual sessions. Each of the two-hour sessions would cover a professional learning topic in the first hour and teachers would work in collaborative groups in the second hour. A virtual session was scheduled approximately six weeks after each in-person session. The purpose of this was to provide teachers time to implement what they learned in the professional learning session and reflect on the implementation. Teachers would also have access to a classroom discourse app that would provide data about the amount of teacher, student, and group talk that occurred in a lesson. Using the app and anecdotal data about their classroom implementation, teachers would reflect and discuss in grade level/content groups. 

As my work progressed with the Science Leadership Team, I became mindful of building systems for accountability. As part of the planning meeting for the professional learning grant, we identified each person’s role in the effort and a timeline for touchpoints, reflection, and adjustments. We calendared necessary items and kept an open dialogue to accommodate changes as needed.

Sep-May – PD Grant Link to materials and presentations

Session 1: Phenomena, September 27, 2023

September 27 General Session .ppt

Phenomenon Resources

Phenomenon Classroom Sample Template

Teachers engaged in a variety of phenomena and were provided additional examples of phenomena in the first hour. During the second hour, teachers collaborated to develop a sample phenomenon lesson to implement in their own classroom. 

Reflection 1: Phenomena, November 8, 2023

Between session 1 and reflection 1, teachers were asked to implement their classroom sample with students and use the classroom discourse recording tool. They were also asked to record two other classroom sessions so that they had data to compare. Using the recording of classroom discourse, teachers reflected on their practice and came prepared to discuss with other teachers during the reflection session. We utilized a SOAR analysis (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results/Response) to guide collaborative groups through the reflection process. 

Session 2: Student Discourse Moves, January 17, 2024

Talk Tools Brief (2024) v2

Student Discourse Protocol Template (2024)

Teachers engaged in a variety of Student Discourse moves, using Ambitious Science Teaching as a primary resource. In the second hour, teachers worked to build classroom samples using student discourse moves. 

Reflection 2: Student Discourse Moves, February 21, 2024

I popped in and out of the different virtual sessions to listen to their discussions and found that each reflection session became progressively better. I was impressed with the level of professionalism and inquiry that teachers brought to the process. It was exciting to hear how their focus shifted away from what they as the teacher needed to say to get the students to engage more. Many teachers were voicing the realization that students were learning better when they had more opportunities to talk. 

Session 3: Sensemaking Tasks Using Science and Engineering Practices, March 27, 2024

SEP Tasks Protocol Template

Lab Write Up Template

Utah’s State Science Specialist came to support this session and provided a variety of resources that help scaffold students in Science and Engineering practices. Many of the resources include articles from STEM Teaching Tools and templates from the Wonder of Science website. 

Session 3: Sensemaking Tasks Using Science and Engineering Practices, May 1, 2024

Due to other commitments, I was unable to participate in the last reflection session. However, because the Science Leadership team had been involved throughout the professional learning process, they knew what to do. The reflection sessions were scheduled to be around 45-60 minutes long. Many of the sessions went beyond the 60 minute mark as teachers were thoroughly engaged in the collaboration and reflection discussion. It was incredible to see the growth of the teachers as they implemented strategies with more intention. It was just as incredible to see the Science Leadership team take on their responsibilities with dedication and integrity.

Reflection Resources

Reflection Template

November 8 Phenomenon Reflection – Chemistry

Next steps

I am moving on to an administrative role in a school next year. Due to budget restraints on the district, they are not planning to find a replacement for my position in the Teaching and Learning Department. However, even without a specified Secondary Science Supervisor, the work of improving science education in Davis School District will carry on. The Science Leadership team has the capacity and skills to move science education forward and continually improve the learning experience for students. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with the incredible professional science educators of Davis School District.

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This site is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Award #1907471 and #1315995