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NEA News

Making Professional Development More Personal

Professional development doesn't have to be boring and generic.
Published: April 17, 2018

When it comes to professional development, lots of educators would rather spend an afternoon in the dentist’s chair than sit through a district training provided by a consultant who has never set foot in a classroom.

But today’s professional development, much of it led by NEA—or funded by NEA grants—is personalized, relevant, and offered by those who know educators’ challenges best: other educators. Here’s a roundup of some of NEA’s best affiliate work in professional development (PD).

Ending the Stigma of Mental Health with PD

On  November 17, 2014, Shannon Fuller received a call that would forever change her life. Her husband was being ordered to a psychiatric lockdown facility.

“I was totally blindsided,” she says.

That night Fuller’s husband, who suffers from mental illness, was put into a facility where he wouldn’t hurt himself or others. Three days later, he was suddenly released.

“It was like, ‘Here you go, you can have your husband now,’” she recalls. “But I had no idea what to do! It was the worst two weeks of my life trying to manage this crisis on my own. To this day, I don’t know how I got through it, but I was determined to find a way to prevent that from happening to anyone else ever again.”

Fuller, a paraeducator from Keene, N.H., and president of the Keene Paraprofessionals Association, found such a way while attending a professional development seminar on mental illness where she heard the heart-wrenching story of former New Hampshire Chief Justice John Broderick.

One night while Broderick slept, his son Christian, 30 at the time, nearly beat him to death with a guitar. Christian had been struggling with undiagnosed mental illness for more than 20 years. The seminar was about the science of mental illness, how to bring it out of the shadows to remove the stigma surrounding those who suffer, and how to recognize the five warning signs of emotional stress. The signs, according to Broderick, are personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-esteem, and hopelessness. None of these things were talked about in Broderick’s family before the assault because of the stigma. Now Broderick hopes to end the stigma.

Shannon Fuller Shannon Fuller

“I was the parent and I didn’t see it. So he suffered for years,” Broderick told Manchester’s Union Leader. “Then we had that horrible tragedy and he went to prison...And I don’t know how he survived that.”

Broderick’s seminar was the inspiration Fuller needed. His story was her story. She knew it was also the story of countless students suffering in silence, and she wanted to join Broderick to raise awareness and end the stigma.

“I decided to apply for an NEA grant to bring mental health first aid to our members—to advocate for our children who cannot speak for themselves and for parents who don’t know what to do for their children who have mental health issues,” she says.

During the first year of the grant, 20 members received the training in Keene. Now the program has expanded to serve everyone in the district. It has even spread into neighboring districts.

Participants do not provide therapy or give diagnoses involving mental health. Instead, they learn to listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage professional help and self-help, and assess for the risk of suicide. The curriculum primarily focuses on support strategies that participants can use to help adolescents from 12 to 18 years old. Fuller works in elementary schools and has found the lessons apply there, too.

“Our youngest kids also experience trauma that leads to anxiety and other mental health problems. Recognizing [concerns] at the earliest ages is the best way to help,” she says.

Irv Richardson is the coordinator of public education and school support at NEA-New Hampshire. To stay on top of the types of professional development topics educators want, Richardson asks about the topics they’re interested in and the challenges they face.

He says that over the last four to six years, “topics that deal with mental health and whole child issues are rising to the surface and educators are packing conference rooms and workshops.”

They want PD on everything from the effects of trauma and the opioid crisis on our students to ways they can address climate and equity in an era of hostility and intolerance. Perhaps as a coping strategy, educators also want PD on mindfulness and the care and feeding of the teacher.

I decided to apply for an  NEA grant to bring mental health first aid to our members—to advocate for our children who cannot speak for themselves and for parents who don’t know what to do for their children who have mental health issues." - Shannon Fuller, paraeducator and president of the Keene Paraprofessionals Association

The seminars and workshops that fill up most quickly, Richardson says, are those dealing with whole child and mental health issues. Kids are more anxious now than ever before, he says, and these days childhood is less a journey and more a race. It builds stress and can compound mental health problems.

Eating disorders, substance abuse, disruptive behavior, anxiety, and depression, which have been preying on students for decades, are finally receiving the attention they need. But there’s a new monster attacking the safety and security of students—the opiod epidemic.

“It’s hitting our students hard and they have trauma,” says Fuller. “They’re seeing their parents high or passing out. They’re seeing loved ones overdose, put in jail, or even die from their drug addiction. There’s trauma and anxiety and, if untreated, they can lead to more serious mental health issues.”

Now, Keene paraeducators all know the five signs of emotional stress. They know how untreated issues can lead to depression or even suicide. Most importantly, they know what to do.

“Educators have to be a frontline defense now,”  Fuller says. “Trauma, addiction, and toxic emotional stress is everywhere.”

By bringing the mental health PD to her colleagues, Fuller feels totally empowered to take mental health by the horns. “It’s not going to take over my life.”

Finding Relevant Professional Development for Iowa’s Changing Students

Des Moines, Iowa, is the fastest growing city in the Midwest, according to the last U.S. Census, Bureau report  and data shows that public school enrollment has grown by 7 percent in 10 years. There is also a lot more diversity among students, driven in large part by a growing immigrant population. One in five students in the school system is an English language learner. More than half of the Des Moines Public Schools student body consists of students of color, and three out of four students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

Stephanie Brennan teaches family and consumer sciences at Lincoln High School and has been an educator in Des Moines for 10 years. She’s seen major changes in student population in that time, but she’s never seen such dramatic changes as those happening now in attitudes and the way some students treat each other. That’s why she has registered for social justice PD courses that focus on increasing tolerance and equity and making schools safer for all students.

NEA Today sat down with Brennan to talk about the PD she’s taking and why it’s become so relevant for her and her colleagues.

First, where have you taken most of your PD courses on topics related to social justice?

SB: I’ve taken them through the Iowa Safe Schools Academy, online and in-person courses offered through a partnership with the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) (license renewal partner) and Drake University (graduate credit partner). Many of the courses are developed with partnerships with other non-profit and advocacy organizations who have subject matter experts in the different topics.

Stephanie Brennan

What are some of the specific Iowa Safe Schools courses you have taken and what are you planning to take next?

SB: Providing Support and Caring for Students: Suicide Prevention for Educators; Navigating Conversations on Human Sexuality; Building Support for Refugee Students; Making LGBTQ Students Safe in the Classroom; Stop Bullying in its Tracks; and Understanding and Supporting Trans Youth.

I am also interested in the Black Lives Matter course on racism and preventing sexual assault because those are two really big issues I am seeing in my classroom and in society and I want to make sure I am prepared to have those conversations with my students.

What else are you seeing that makes these courses relevant to your professional practice?

SB: I am still seeing the “Trump Effect” in my classrooms. I have so many conversations with students now about their worry of deportation—the fear they have of losing their parents, their friends, and even their own deportation. This was something I never even had to worry about in the past because of the protections in place. I also see an increase in blatant racism and intolerance in the classroom. Some students seem emboldened to “share” their own hurtful opinions of others. This is also very new to me as an educator.

But the best, most relevant, lesson I’ve learned from all of the trainings I’ve taken is that teachers have to do the heart work, which is the hard work. In other words, you have to dig in and really get to know your students—their lives, their traumas, their pasts, their struggles. That is the only way you can learn how to help them succeed.

Our student population is ever-changing and the issues teens face today are evolving rapidly. I have seen a huge change in the demographics of my students just in my first 10 years of teaching and the Safe Schools Academy courses addresses all of these issues that are rarely addressed in our school’s own professional development programs.

But the best, most relevant, lesson I’ve learned from all of the trainings I’ve taken is that teachers have to do the heart work, which is the hard work. In other words, you have to dig in and really get to know your students—their lives, their traumas, their pasts, their struggles." - Teacher Stephanie Brennan

What were some highlights of the courses you’ve taken?

SB: I really loved the course on supporting refugee students. There were a lot of really good articles and stories from different perspectives and voices. I also loved the human sexuality course and the courses relating to LGBTQ issues. I am a sex ed teacher and the Gay Straight Alliance faculty sponsor and it really validated my own skills in the classroom and that I am doing a lot to make my classroom feel safe and inclusive.

What’s your best advice to other educators developing their own PD plans?

SB: Make PD 100 percent applicable to you and your students. If you’re seeing your students struggling with certain issues, then you should learn and grow in those areas so you can better support them. Find classes with subjects that you also enjoy, but allow yourself to get uncomfortable. Be vulnerable and willing to talk about your weaknesses in the classroom. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Stay ahead of the game, but don’t stress yourself out trying to get five classes done in one month. Take one each summer and take more than the five required for license renewal, or whatever the requirement is in your state. And when you’re engaged in a course, really dive into discussions with fellow educators. I always learn a lot about the demographics and challenges other schools face and I get to learn from their experiences. Teachers share a lot of strategies and stories that I’ve used in my classroom.

California’s Instructional Leadership Corps

By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin, Courtesy of California Educator

With students of color making up more than 50 percent of the population in California schools, the state has long been a leader in culturally relevant pedagogy. They’ve also been innovators in delivering culturally relevant PD with peer-to-peer instruction.

Grounded in the belief that teachers can take charge of their own learning—and learn from and contribute to the learning of others if they are supported to do so—the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the California Teachers Association (CTA), and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University have partnered to form a statewide Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC).  It’s educators leading educators in professional development, rather than a hired consultant with no firsthand knowledge of the students or school culture.

With more than 1,000 California school districts made up of more than 10,000 schools in which teachers teach one of the most diverse populations of students in the nation, CTA realized they needed to think strategically about their PD and designed the ILC so it would be rooted in local knowledge about the needs of particular students, teachers, and the schools in which they work. It’s all about teachers supporting teachers.

“We have not seen this type of professional development in California” in more than a decade, says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford. “The type of drive-by workshops that bring experts from the outside and PowerPoint presentations do not work. That does not change teaching practices. We know [which] professional development approaches dramatically improve and those are approaches where teachers work with other teachers in a collegial way.”

One of the leading members of the ILC is Senorina (Noni) Reis.

Senorina Reis

Long before “cultural competency” became a priority in public schools, Reis was busy creating multicultural, relevant curriculum to help culturally and linguistically diverse students succeed. Decades later, she’s still at it as a member of the ILC.

Schools have made strides, but there are times Reis still has to convince educators that it’s necessary to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy into classroom materials and instructional strategies. Not so long ago, some may recall, students from other cultures were seen as having “deficits” that needed to be overcome for assimilation.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of Reis and other social justice activists, that kind of thinking has been replaced with the goal of achieving cultural competency, based on the philosophy of building on students’ cultural strengths to promote their achievement and their sense of well-being in the world.

“I have an unwavering belief and philosophy that cultural relevance must happen if equity is our goal,” says Reis, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at San José State University. She incorporates this philosophy while teaching graduate students, and folds it into her research on social justice leadership. “As teachers, we need to be activists and not perpetuate the status quo. We must be agents of change when it comes to improving education for all students.”

The California Faculty Association member knows a thing or two about organizing and change. As a teenager, she helped organize new members into the United Farm Workers in Salinas Valley.

We know [which] professional development approaches dramatically improve and those are approaches where teachers work with other teachers in a collegial way.” - Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University

Reis taught preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, and she was an elementary school principal. She has been a mentor teacher and lecturer in the credential program at University of California, Santa Cruz. She has also been a BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) provider and helped create the first unit for that program about equity and multiculturalism in schools. It’s one of her proudest achievements.

During three decades of developing instructional programs to help educators effectively teach English learners, she led the development of several state and national curriculum and coaching programs, including with the California Department of Education and NEA.

Reis’ involvement with ILC includes working with teachers in the local regions, and with CalTeach interns. She created a series of ILC lessons designed to help teachers implement the new standards, “Building Blocks for a Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” which she presented at CTA’s Summer Institute in August. The three building blocks are:

Vision—Implementing your vision for a culturally relevant pedagogy with challenging curriculum. This might include providing an interactive learning environment or having students collaborate at tables instead of sitting in rows.

Curriculum approaches—Levels for multicultural education include language development, contextualization, challenging activities, and instructional conversations. The highest level takes a social justice approach, where students address issues within their own community, such as recycling or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

Pedagogy—The delivery of rigorous, culturally responsive lessons that address the sociopolitical context of schools. The goal is to engage students through dialogue and encourage them to use questioning to foster critical thinking skills.

“Seeing teachers embrace and implement these changes for the good of their students is my biggest reward,” says Reis.

Relevant PD From Your School Librarian

Allison Mackley is a National Board Certified Teacher Librarian and Instructional Technology Coach at Hershey High School in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

She offers "just-in-time" professional learning opportunities throughout the day for her colleagues who rely on her as in in-house font of development they can put to use in right away.

"Sometimes, I identify a need in the school or across the district when determining a professional development session that I would like to propose," Mackley says. "Other times, I work with instructional coaches, teams of teachers, administrators or technology directors to determine the most relevant and meaningful topics.

Her high school just went 1:1 with iPads, so she knew that professional learning around meaningful technology integration was going to be essential. She anticipated that professional development about the attitudes of students who have grown up digital would also be necessary.  She gives a presentation called “Living the Digital Life,” that offers opportunities for reflection and learning around the balance between the technological world and instructional strategies that can be used in the classroom.

For new teachers at her school, she co-presents “The Library: More Than Just Books,” which is an interactive library orientation using GooseChase to engage the new teachers in exploring the library program and its services as well as  “Ethical Digital Literacy for Teachers” on security, privacy and resource evaluation.

Why are librarians particularly suited to provide PD?

"I think librarians are naturally curious. We keep current on educational trends, and are experts in the are experts in the field of research, information literacy, ethical use of information, intellectual property and, often, digital and media literacies," Mackley says. "Being collaborative is part of our culture, which positions us as natural partners with individuals and groups in the entire school community."

Right now the hot topic in librarian-led PD is technology. Beyond integrating it into lessons, teachers are gaining skills to use technology as a tool to differentiate and customize educational experiences for students, whether that means the need for remediation or enrichment.

What are some quick tips you can get from your librarian? Here are a few Mackley suggests:

  • Have questions about a resource you want to include in a packet for your students? Ask your librarian for tips on copyright and fair use. 
  • Want to learn how to use the latest tech to engage your students? Ask your librarian to demonstrate tools like Canza where you can create your own images or Goosechase where you can create online scavenger hunts for students.
  • Are you spreading fake news without even knowing it? Ask your librarian to help you evaluate sources and how to pass those skills on to your students.

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