STEM for All Students

Meeting Students Where They’re At

So often school has a one-size fits all approach.  This is partially because individualizing content and activities is hard and time-consuming.  On the other side of this coin, a lot of students aren’t getting the opportunities that they deserve to access their education.  This is a broad topic and way beyond the scope of one blog post.  With this in mind, I’d like to narrow down to looking at ISTE Standard 3 which focuses on addressing digital learning needs, but I’d like to broaden the discussion a little from there to include STEM since I can speak to this from my overall background and experiences.  While I’m not sure how to individualize STEM education for every student in a given classroom setting, I do think we can do little things to move beyond a singular approach so that more students can have the opportunity to access this learning.  Culturally relevant pedagogy can help more students access standards-based content in a manner that’s developmentally appropriate for them. And, per the Edutopia article entitled Making STEM Accessible to All (Reed, M. 2018), “But there are benefits to being exposed to STEM in the classroom beyond test scores, such as improved problem-solving skills, creativity, mental alertness, and teamwork and collaboration. As leaders, we must ensure that every student has a chance to reap these benefits.”

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

3) Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.

3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.

3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

How can instructional coaches and professional development providers partner with other educators to engage and support all students with culturally relevant digital and STEM learning content that’s both developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards?

Providing STEM Opportunities For All Students in the Classroom

I’ll be honest, I struggled with how to individualize learning for students in my classroom.  I have yet to find an approach that accomplishes this without exponentially increasing the teacher’s workload.  This did get me thinking about how to better reach my students for whom the generic approach wasn’t working, though.  I tried to consider how to integrate reading in a way that students reading 2-3 levels below grade-level could still participate and be successful because reading to learn is where students with learning disabilities most often struggle (Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., Ganley, P., 2015).  In my experience, the same was true for writing to learn and for the math involved.  I also partnered, paired, and grouped very carefully with this in mind.  How were students balancing each other out skill-wise so that their team could learn and perform at a higher level than any of them could on their own (we transformed our table groups into “learning teams”).  In support of my English learners and special education students, this often meant collaborating with the corresponding teachers.  Could we move content around for a special event or flex the schedule?  Could the teachers and students try pushing into my classroom for a unit?  Could the various groups of learners work on the content in parallel and then come together for a culminating activity?  Getting creative is key and often not as much work as one might think… just intimidating when it comes to the hardest part: getting started.

STEM Instructional Coaching in Support of All Students

As an instructional specialist and coach, I tried to continue collaborating with other specialists so as to better reach more students.  The special education and English learner teachers and I collaborated on activities that were unique and special just for their students.  We also worked with classroom teachers that were willing to make adjustments wherever possible.  I branched out to working with the music and PE teachers when I could. According to Basham, J.D. and Marino, M.T. (2013), “The success of students with disabilities who participate in general education STEM classes is directly linked to teachers’ abilities to understand students’ unique learning need and problem-solving abilities (Marino, 2010).”  Technology is incredibly powerful when it comes to helping students access learning in a variety of ways.  If they can’t write then can they speak to text?  Can we use a text reader for reading?  How about video access?  Screen recorders?  All different ways for students to show they learned the STEM content itself as opposed to testing them on other skills like communication, reading, writing, etc.

One thing I learned along the way is that there are a lot of students who will find their first big successes in STEM-based activities, if they are given the chance.  I first saw this in my first year teaching.  “J” was special education student that struggled with reading and writing in particular.  Traditional school was a chore, though, from which he derived no joy and was barely passing, except, when it came to STEM oriented activities that possessed a technology component.  Here he excelled.  I tried to nurture this where I could but opportunities were limited at that time. In spring, when I received a flyer about the new district technology academy opening up, I saved a copy and handed it to his mom and implored her to look into it for him.  She did, he blossomed, and eventually became one of the IT leads for the district, went on to work for a leading technology company, developed brilliant anti-malware software in his free time that he sold to a company, and now serves as a lead network administrator for a leading nonprofit.  “S” was another student who had Tier 3 interventions and so missed most classroom content time yet excelled.  I was able to engage and support him in our after-school robotics club where he became a leader, one of the most adept programmers, and a brilliant designer.  He figured out challenges that stumped the adults and was able to do so remarkably fast.  With regard to anything mechanical, he was absolutely brilliant.  The special education teacher and I created as many unique and special opportunities for him as we could and he shined.

Students like “S” and “J” are examples in the current educational system where essentially taking our metaphorical “fish” that are gifted swimmers and only testing them on their ability to “climb trees”.  The system is hardwired, mammoth, and often set in stone so it’s difficult for teachers to make adjustments but it’s worth doing what we can where we can.  Getting creative with the standards is one way so that students can demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of contexts.  I kept a clipboard with a roster on the wall for each content area and would grab the appropriate one in a hurry if I noticed an opportunity for a quick data point in the midst of a unique learning opportunity that I hadn’t anticipated.  Adjusting schedules where we can around the edges is another place that we can make small changes that add up over time and if enough teachers speak out then larger changes can occur, e.g. in my previous district, over many years and much advocacy science instruction eventually became protected time during the K-6 elementary school day.

Professional Development Provider: How Do I Support All Students?

These are all connections based on my current research connected to my previous educational experience.  This all comes back around to my essential question but from my current context as a professional development provider.  Every context is so different, and I my experience is limited.  Even the most experienced teacher cannot hope to experience even 1% of possible contexts out there.  Knowing this is to recognize that every educator is the expert on their teaching context, so, as a professional development provider, how can I support and empower them?  I think looking at the research, identifying patterns of success, and truly listening to each educator in order to learn from their experience are good places to start. Teachers want professional development that’s relevant, treats them like professionals, and is delivered by someone who understands their experience (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014).  Some things I’ve noticed so far, most teachers did not have any STEM training as part of their teacher certification process so some initial basics are needed in order to help them get up and running.  Growing teacher confidence is key and even more important than ability.  We can always learn alongside the students as we go.  Planting seeds, encouraging ideas, and validating early thinking are some ways to encourage teachers to support all students in STEM education efforts. 

Drawing Conclusions for a Truly Broader Impact

I’ve written mostly to special education examples because that’s where my current research led me but there are so many broader examples to explore.  English learners need additional ways to access content and it needs to be okay for them to find ways to show what they know via native language when possible and native culture when appropriate.  Student minorities need to see themselves and their cultural values reflected in the learning and career opportunities so that they can truly see themselves growing up into a variety of STEM roles.  Girls need supports and encouragement that are at least as supportive and encouraging as boys often receive in these areas.  By providing a variety of ways for students to access their learning and working to make STEM both available and accessible to all learners, we can start to make small steps together as educators to show that all means all and truly starts with meeting each student as an individual where they are at.


  1. Basham, J.D. & Marino, M.T. (2013). Understanding STEM Education and Supporting Students Through Universal Design for Learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 45 (No. 4), pp. 8-15.
  2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  3. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  4. Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., & Ganley, P. (2015). Addressing Learning Disabilities With UDL and Technology: Strategic Reader. Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 38 (No. 2), pp. 72-83.
  5. Reed, M. (2018, July 9). Making STEM Accessible to All. Edutopia. Retrieved from

If You Build It (Relationships) Then They (Teachers) Will Come To You

It’s All About Relationships

My principal, Gregory Kroll, is one of my personal and professional heroes.  Now, I no longer teach at Martin Sortun Elementary, but, at 8 years, he was my longest running principal.  The man gave more than I knew was possible and had a heart to match.  Whatever you needed, whatever it took, he was there for you.  One of the things he used to tell me is that teaching, coaching, and working in a school “are all about relationships” at the end of the day.  What your relationship is with a person (colleague, parent, student, etc.) will affect every aspect of the interactions and outcomes.  His insight shed light on the need to be aware of relationships as will as the need to grow and cultivate positive relationships with everyone (not taking anything for granted).  This leads me directly into the first component ISTE Coaching Standard.  Without 3a, components 3b-3d are difficult at best.  Establishing trusting relationships is the foundation to any form of instructional coaching. 

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

  • 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.
  • 3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.
  • 3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.
  • 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

As a professional development provider and instructional coach, based on my experiences and expertise how do I establish trusting and respectful relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies?

My Time as a Teacher: True confessions time…

True confession, as a classroom teacher, I thought I knew a lot more than I did.  While I sought out and grew under mentors, I was not generally open to working with instructional coaches on a 1:1 basis.  I think part of this extends from the fact that I spent my first six years in a building that did not have an instructional coach and thought I was doing fine growing through other professional development opportunities.  It helped that my principal, Cathy Lendosky, was extremely skilled at delivering effective professional development so our teacher workshop days were high quality experiences.  So when I arrived at Martin Sortun going into my seventh year of teaching, I didn’t see the need.  It also didn’t help that the instructional coaches were both in my peer group and so had the exact same amount of instructional experience.  Knowing what I know now, I was definitely wrong.  I still participated in every PD opportunity provided by the instructional coaches outside of 1:1 coaching, but I only engaged in that when requested and wasn’t an active, growth-minded customer interested in continuing the practice over time.  I think in part, it’s because of relationship.  They were my friends and colleagues, so there was something there but there wasn’t an established professional development relationship with my instructional coaches.

Instructional Coaching: Lessons Learned…

The tables had certainly turned when the opportunity presented itself for me to become an instructional coach.  Very quickly, I realized that I needed to learn and grow a lot if I was to be an effective instructional coach.  My (now fellow) instructional coaches were probably delighted at my newfound interest and both readily coached me.  I was trying to make up for lost time.  On the flip side of things, having been a reticent classroom teacher when it came to coaching, I knew how to engage the other teachers like me.  It was all about relationship.  I made sure that they felt “invited” but not pressured so that there would be no hard feelings but they’d also feel free to say “no thank you” to opportunities that I provided.  Conversely, I went out of my way to make sure that they’d be curious about whatever little tidbit from the training did make it their way and to profusely thank any of them that did show up.  I sincerely believe that teacher planning time is far more precious than gold.  My follow-up touch points would also be quick, to the point, and hopefully meaningful which I’d do via a quick in-person interaction or short email.  Mostly, I’d just see how it was going and if there was anymore that I could do to support following the training or activity.  Would they like me to come in and co-teach a lesson?  I’d be happy to do all of the planning and teaching if they’d just like to present alongside me.  This approach usually worked and each co-teaching experience looked different depending on the teacher’s experience.  As time and interactions progressed, I focused on building the relationship.  What did they need help with?  What worked?  What could I offer that helped them accomplish one of their goals?  Relationship, relationship, relationship.

Professional Development Provider: The More You Know…

Relationship as a professional development provider is definitely much harder.  It’s hard to have relationships with 50 or more of your “closest friends” from across the country that you just met.  And yet, relationships are just as important in this context.  So building relational capacity from the moment those educators walk through that door is key.  And, as a designer of these professional development opportunities, it’s really important that those relational capacity building activities are built into the course syllabus design.

This is all much easier said than done. Designing in time for developing relational capacity takes discipline because it is so tempting to either view this as “fluff” or cut this time in the interest of other content. Additionally, building relationship is work. Hard work. You have to care. People can sense a lack of authenticity so this means being vulnerable because you have to be your real self and invest emotionally. Passion for the topic can help but there’s no substitute for legitimate relational connection.

The More You Know, The More You Realize How Little You Know

The more you know, the less you know seems to have been a theme for my career.  Every time a professional opportunity expands my horizons and helps me to grow and learn more as an educator, the more I realize that the percentage of what I actually know is really much smaller than I thought.  It’s almost like professional knowledge pie chart where my personal piece grows at a much slower rate than the total knowledge I’m aware of and therefore appears to always be shrinking over time.  The realization can be a bit overwhelming, but there is also comfort in knowing that no one person can possibly have all of the answers.

Ultimately, you don’t know what you don’t know and so need to be open to learning along the way.  Relationships were a constantly recurring theme for me when it came to my professional growth.  Either it was there or it wasn’t there and I often grew in my practice in direct proportion to the type of relationship I had with my professional development providers.  In turn, the same was true for participants that I supported.  Relationships are a two-way street and so both people need to invest in order for there to be a relational benefit.  When they do, then relatable learning can happen and level of relational capacity developed forms the foundation for broader and deeper levels of professional learning and shared throughout all of ISTE Coaching Standard 3.

Interestingly enough, there was a video that I participated in as part of my instructional coaching work when I was bridging over to the role of professional development provider.  It’s a snapshot of where I was at during that point in time as well as a representation of the many different kinds of amazing educators that I had the opportunity to work with and support.  If you’re curious, you can watch this video as it highlights one of my final projects as an instruction coach focused on STEM integration at a K-6 STEM Lighthouse School.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28th). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from
  3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from
  4. Dorr, E. (2015, November). How Administrators Can Design the Best Learning Experiences for Teachers. EdSurge. Retrieved from
  5. Gilliam, J. & Ferguson D. (2018, September). GUEST VIDEO: STEM TEACHING AND LEARNING AT MARTIN SORTUN ELEMENTARY. Washington STEM. Retrieved from