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Professional Opportunities

For Our Members

How to stay on track with your own education goals as you teach others.

By Renee Pinckney

With the school year about to ramp up, most educators are focused on preparing for another year of growth and academic development for their students. It’s just as important, however, for educators to take time for self-assessment and to examine their own academic goals.

Investing in professional development is critical to your career growth and fosters the continuous improvement needed to keep current. By equipping yourself with the latest skills, methodologies, and technological tools, you can ensure you remain competitive and proficient.

Even if the importance of professional development is clear, the thought of going back to school can be daunting: Pursuing a master’s degree, doctorate, a graduate certificate, or specialty certification, while balancing a full-time job and family responsibilities, can be a challenge for even the most capable of educators. But in our digital world, educators have options: Why not consider a reputable online program that offers all the benefits of a traditional education but with considerably more flexibility?

Making Time for Learning

One of the greatest advantages of online classes is the flexibility to “attend” class and complete coursework whenever it’s most convenient. Mark Stevens, general manager of the NEA Academy, says, “[Online education] saves you time. You can schedule learning around other commitments in your busy schedule.”

Most online courses last from eight to 12 weeks, according to Stevens, but this can vary depending on the institution and the particular program. Much like attending evening courses at a local college, pursuing an online degree while working may take several years, especially if you’re enrolled in only one or two courses a semester.

Some schools offer accelerated online courses that can be completed over summer vacation or winter break. It’s important to keep in mind your own learning style, goals, and the amount of time you can devote to classes so that you can select the type of online program that meets your individual needs.

Is Online Education Different than Going to a University?

While online programs are often structured differently than classroom-based programs, many of the same learning tools are used, including group projects, interactive lectures, and class discussions. Despite the similarities, there are some differences in how these formats are presented online, and it’s helpful to speak with colleagues or friends who have taken an online course to understand how those differences manifest themselves.

“Talk to someone who has already taken an online course or earned a degree online,” Stevens suggests. “Get their opinion about their online learning experience and any tips they may have that will help ensure your success.”

Stevens adds that prospective students should also talk in depth with an academic advisor about which specific program or path to pursue and how it’s structured.

“There’s a difference between a degree program that has specific, rigid deadlines and an online course of study that may give you a licensed period of time, that is, a window of time to complete the coursework after you pay the tuition,” Stevens added.

As with brick-and-mortar institutions, there’s no doubt that some online universities are better than others. Stevens advises prospective students to investigate thoroughly each program they’re considering before making a decision.

As for the quality of online education, Stevens added that research findings have demonstrated that the quality of education available through an online institution can be equivalent to or even higher than a bricks-and-mortar university.

Is Online Education Right for Me?

Online education isn’t a one-size-fits-all pursuit, but fortunately the variety of available courses and formats makes it easy to find a program that’s right for you. Before considering online coursework, take the time to reflect on your goals, motivation level, computer skills, and what advantages an online program may provide. Having a clear understanding of these factors can help tremendously as you evaluate different offerings.

Also, because of the scheduling flexibility inherent in online education, you should make an honest assessment of your motivation and your ability to devote the time needed to get the most out of the coursework. Plan for some additional time above and beyond what you’ll need to complete the class sessions and assignments.

Stevens says students who derive the most benefit from online programs often exhibit similar characteristics: They’re highly motivated, have an independent learning style, are very organized, and have excellent time-management skills. “From a personal perspective, it’s really about making sure you have a clear understanding of the requirements of taking an online course.”

Although the program may be more flexible, that doesn’t mean it’s any less rigorous. “Individuals need to be prepared for the fact that they are going to be accountable for their time and that online courses are, in many cases, more rigorous than a face-to-face course,” Stevens said. “If you don’t show up for that activity, or you don’t participate in some community-based program in the course, your professor knows immediately because it’s all reported out.”

Being technologically prepared is also important and more complicated than it may appear, even to the digitally savvy. To participate successfully in online programs, Stevens said students need good computer equipment, an environment conducive to learning, and reliable, high-speed Internet access.

Can I Afford Online Education?

One of the factors you’ll need to weigh when considering furthering your professional development is how much it will cost. A research study conducted by the NEA Academy found that 81 percent of NEA members cited cost as the primary factor in their decision to further their professional development.

If the institution you’re planning to attend doesn’t cover your education costs, consider applying for federal loans or private education loans through providers such as Sallie Mae, which offers NEA members special discounts and features. Another option is to apply for scholarships from the NEA Academy’s partner institutions. Western Governors University offers NEA members the opportunity to apply for a $2,400 scholarship, which will typically cover the cost of one term. Another Academy partner, Walden University, offers a number of full-tuition scholarships for members. Stevens urges students to pursue these NEA-only scholarships as early as possible as the application deadlines are often weeks in advance of the beginning of the term. Learn more about NEA Academy professional development programs and partner scholarships at

“If you’re an NEA member in good standing, you can apply for the available scholarships,” he said. “The scholarships are based on merit—not need—so it’s important to check with each university for the criteria that must be met.”

If you’re someone who wants to complete a program in record time, you might consider a school that allows you to take as many courses as you like for a flat fee—like Western Governors University. Or, if financial resources are tight, consider an extended program that will allow you to spread the cost of your education over time.

Going back to school is a big decision. Whether you choose to enroll in an NEA Academy program or another online education program, NEA Academy is here to support you!

What is the NEA Academy?

The NEA Academy was designed to support NEA members’ professional growth, careers, and licensure requirements. It supports newer teachers (less than five years of teaching) and those individuals who view professional development as a way to reinvigorate their professional careers (15 to 20 years of teaching).

Stevens said, “We’ve done the work for you in terms of selecting the best programs and getting you the best price.”

The NEA Academy offers more than 200 continuing education courses, including a workforce training program at Idaho State University. NEA Academy partners include Western Governors University, Walden University, and the University of Massachusetts Online (UMassOnline), all of which offer master’s degrees. Western Governors also offers undergraduate programs. 

A new set of courses offered by Walden University and UMassOnline, called graduate certificate and non-licensure, allows members who may already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree to specialize in a specific area such as special education, math, science, or English language learning. The NEA Academy also added undergraduate programs from Western Governors University and has plans to offer doctoral programs in the future.

Degrees by the numbers

1. Most popular graduate programs for teachers:  Among those who anticipate pursuing additional education, nearly half (46 percent) expect to earn an additional certification or license, and 38 percent expect to earn a master’s degree in education.

2. Interest in online professional development: 60 percent of NEA members plan to pursue either an advanced degree or additional certification in the education field online at some point in the future.

In Your Own Words

Name: Jenny Gatherer

Occupation: Math teacher, Richland High School in Richland, Washington.

NEA Member Jenny Gatherer shares the importance of professional learning opportunities.

Why did you decide to go back to school?

I wanted to work on my degree while teaching a new curriculum to students who dislike math.

Why did you pick an online program?

Initially, I chose Western Governors University in Washington because it’s flexible and affordable. I got a tuition discount through the university’s partnership with the NEA Academy. And since the tuition is a flat fee, I could take as many courses each term as I was able to handle. It allowed me to accelerate quickly through my degree program and save a lot of money.

How long did it take you to get a degree?

Twelve months.

What has been the greatest benefit?

What’s really great about WGU is that it encouraged me to incorporate what I was learning into my classroom as I was learning it, so that’s what I did. My class absolutely loved it!

What was your biggest takeaway from the program?

I now have a new learning model for my students. Instead of teaching through “direct instruction,” I now do the exact opposite. In place of a strict lesson plan and timeline, I teach through a competency-based method, using formative assessments to determine what students have learned and what I will teach next. The results enable me to teach the students what they need to learn, which builds depth in their understanding and inevitably saves time and a lot of frustration.

Have you seen any results in the classroom?

My students have shown a three-year gain in just 18 months on their most recent NWEA MAP® test (Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress). They didn’t learn any less math than the kids in the traditional algebra course, they just learned it at their own pace, and caught up with their peers. Eighty percent are now at grade level and 9 percent have exceeded grade level, despite starting out below grade level. The competency-based method engenders a sense of pride and has brought their self-esteem and confidence in math to a much higher level. What’s even more remarkable is that my students now like math!


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