A tribute to ‘unsung teachers’: teachers’ influences on students enrolling in STEM programs with the intent of entering STEM careers


Source: European Journal of Teacher Education, 42:3, 335-358

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This narrative inquiry examines teachers’ influences on undergraduate and graduate students who enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs and intended to enter STEM careers.
Three National Science Foundation (NSF) scholarship grants sat in the backdrop, (one STEM teacher education grant [teachHOUSTON], one undergraduate cyber technology grant, one graduate cyber security grant).

Research methodology
Sources of evidence
Three forms of evidence constitute the storied data pool for this article.
The first two are regularly scheduled interviews and focus group sessions with the graduate and undergraduate students and their professors, which occurred for all three funded grant projects.
The third piece of evidence is reflective writing in journals or via email communications as some students graduated and entered the workforce in other parts of the country.

Description of undergraduate and graduate students
Although many undergraduate and graduate students participating in the three scholarship grant programs stressed the influence their teachers had on their schooling, the authors decided to work with a convenience sample of three, each of which had a compelling stories to tell:
The two males, Omid and LM, were students of color and the first-in-their-families to attend university.
As for Joyce, she was a rare white physics preservice candidate who was also the first-in-her-family to enter higher education. Joyce, Omid and LM each represent one of the three grant programs.
Joyce Harding is a white female from Texas who was a participant in teachHOUSTON, the STEM teacher education grant; Omid Kassem is an Iranian American male who was part of the undergraduate cyber technology program; and LM (Lee Mitchell) is an African American male who participated in the graduate cyber security program.

Serial interpretation
Having featured three cases from the three awarded scholarship grants, the authors then present five overarching themes that cut across the representative cases.
The five encompassing themes are:
1) same programs, different narrative histories;
2) in loco parentis,
3) learning in small moments;
4) counter stories; and
5) the importance of the liberal arts in STEM education.

Same programs, different narrative histories
In this work, the longitudinal effect of undergraduate and graduate students’ primary and secondary teachers is foregrounded. All three students, for one reason or another (high poverty, historically underserved minority, immigrant, ESL, etc.), would have been classified as likely failures in the Texas state accountability system because it evaluates students’ test results in relation to their peers’ academic performances. At one point or another, each would have been ‘a bubble kid’ – a student at high risk of dropping out. However, various teachers intervened in ways that greatly increased both the well-beings and academic successes of Joyce, Omid and LM. Without their teachers’ actions, their narratives – and, hence, their lives – would not have changed in the forward-moving ways they describe in this article.

In loco parentis
What teachers of all races did, of course, was to take the in loco parentis roles they played very seriously.
In loco parentis means that teachers are charged with acting in students’ best interests like Joyce’s, Omid’s and LM’s parents would have done were they able and present in the featured situations.
In this article, we see teachers acting as proxies for parents by providing students with nourishment, listening to their stories, engaging them in hard conversations, offering advice when needed and providing comfort, support and direction. The teachers also openly advocated for Joyce, Omid and LM.

Counter stories
The teachers – frequently acting as parental proxies for Joyce, Omid and LM – planted seeds for different ‘stories for them to live by’, but the students themselves had to accept the plotlines of these counter narratives as part of their identities. In all three students’ cases, their teachers introduced them to powerful counter narratives to live by, which the students embraced through breathing self-sustaining life into them and making them their own.

Learning in small moments
Small stories unfurling over time between many teachers and the three students helped the youths to excel in the STEM disciplines in their undergraduate and graduate education and fueled their hopes for future STEM-related careers. These stories, which sustained Joyce, Omid and LM and prepared them for higher education, were not grand stories or mega-narratives (Olson and Craig 2009) of STEM education.
Rather, they were small stories – petite plotlines – that emerged in rather mundane situations in everyday elementary and secondary school life.

Importance of the liberal arts in STEM education
The teachers who supported Joyce, Omid, and LM on their journeys to undergraduate and graduate education in the sciences were not only STEM educators, but also liberal arts (including performing arts) teachers. Nussbaum (2010) maintains that those who teach the humanities teach students about human emotions and human frailties in ways that those who teach the STEM disciplines are not able.

Closing statements
The authors declare that what this article on the influence of teachers on primary and secondary students who enroll in university-based STEM programs shows is that the public sadly takes too narrow of a view of teachers, their input into students’ experiences, engagement and understandings and their impact on students’ attitudes, achievement and attainment. In the local school system, the value of a teacher is currently reduced to one academic year of influence via value-added modeling approaches and is considered through the lens of one content area in the middle school and high school years.
This exploratory research study abundantly shows the influence of teachers acting as agents of education in its entirety, not simply as agents of one disciplinary field.
The authors emphasize that it is therefore essential that teacher education programs prepare prospective teachers for their comprehensive roles, which necessarily includes in loco parentis responsibilities.
Furthermore, the concerns of the unknown teachers featured in this article were not merely for the academic development of Joyce, Omid and LM, but also for their physical, emotional and social well-being – in short, their teachers actively assisted these students in developing a strong sense of their best-loved selves.
Their teachers’ understanding of their roles as pedagogues involved the development of Joyce, Omid and LM as whole persons, a perspective that necessarily needs to be stressed in teacher education programs despite it being an unmeasurable quality.

Nussbaum, M. 2010. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Olson, M., and C. Craig. 2009. “Small” Stories and Meganarratives: Accountability in Balance.” Teachers College Record 111 (2): 547–572 

Updated: Dec. 12, 2019