“I always knew where I wanted to be and that I wanted to teach psychology,” says Debra Park, part-time lecturer of psychology and for the Institute of Effective Education. Debra was recently named a recipient of the Part-Time Lecturers Professional Development Fund, which will fund her research and assist her in preparing courses, workshops, and seminars to share the information she has gathered over the past five to ten years, some of which she will present October 23, 2015 at the 17th Annual Mid-Atlantic Teachers of Psychology (MATOP) conference at Prince George’s Community College, just outside of Washington, DC. “Courses that students are required to take and the assessments required by states do not show the whole picture…my goal is to make research findings available to teachers and students—to develop concrete strategies they can use to help them be the best they can be.” After teaching psychology and social studies full-time for West Deptford High School for thirty-three years, and receiving the West Deptford School District and Gloucester County Teacher of the Year Awards, she retired in 2010 so she could have more time to dedicate to this research.

Debra attended Rowan University and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology as well as teaching certificates for psychology and social studies. Later, she went back and acquired her master’s certificate in Supervision and Curriculum, which enabled her to work with teachers in curriculum and professional development at the high school level.

Before Debra retired from teaching high school, she started teaching at Rutgers–Camden for the summer sessions. “I always had it in the back of my mind [to teach at a college],” she says. Debra adds that she felt comfortable on campus; the urban setting was exciting because she never taught in a city before, but only in the suburbs. “It was a perfect fit.”

Debra says that she likes the small classes at Rutgers–Camden, which are more suitable for active learning. “From day one it has been such a positive experience and I love it.” Debra has taught at Rutgers–Camden for fourteen years, usually teaching one course a semester, such as Human Development at Atlantic Cape Community College for Rutgers–Camden.  Human Development is a psychology course directed to students pursuing nursing careers. “Tailoring my course to meet my students’ needs is really important…application of research related to their careers and how it can help them become better at what they do affects how I teach the course.”

Over twenty years ago, Debra attended a summer program for psychology teachers at Arcadia University. There, Debra met peers who encouraged her to get involved with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS). She served on that committee as chair and has been involved in many projects in the Education Directorate of APA ever since. In her various roles, she has developed curriculum resources and provided professional development for psychology high school teachers and college instructors.

Debra’s interest is in positive psychology and its application to education. Her work is influenced by Martin Seligman, the psychologist commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology. Debra especially is interested in what makes people happy, healthy, and successful, and how to keep people that way. “It’s proactive instead of reactive. We can help prevent problems instead of solving the problems after the fact.” Debra’s interest naturally evolved from wanting to help others and her experiences as a teacher.  “I love everything [about positive psychology]…it’s based on good science and research.” She says positive psychology is helpful to everyone at any age, and everyone can benefit from it over a lifespan.

“I have presented at many national conventions and professional development venues, and I love sharing what I have learned with others,” she says. Debra hopes to integrate positive psychology into school curriculum, providing tips to students to lead healthier lives and improve not only their academics, but their mental health in general. Her research and its application is not just for students, but for teachers, too. “In schools dedicated to the teaching of academic, social, and emotional skills, it is even more essential that the learning of adults mirrors the teaching that children receive. This is why teachers need to… develop their own personal well-being habits. The social and emotional well-being of students and teachers is vital to creating safe and caring learning environments in which all students thrive academically and socially.”

Debra says she is proud to be a part of the Society for Teaching Psychology and TOPSS, and she is grateful for her role in the organizations, which provided her opportunities such as working with influential people in the field, such as David Myers, who is a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan, and is known for his popular textbooks and general-audience psychology books. Debra and David both serve on the Standards Committee for APA, which reviews and revises the National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula to ensure the best education for students. Debra served on the Editorial Advisory Board for Myers’ Psychology for AP. She also said it was exciting to have Skype sessions with him in her Psychology of Happiness course so her students could meet him and learn from the man who wrote the book from which they were learning.  She feels honored to have met Aaron T. Beck, a psychiatrist famous for being the founder of cognitive psychology, and to have presented at an APA convention with him.

High school students, she notes, are not that different than adult learners in a college setting because they both are passionate about learning and want to be successful; however, both age groups have different worries and obstacles. Both high school and college students, she adds, can apply psychology to their life, which makes learning about the subject more meaningful. “You can always tell when a student loves a class and I always enjoy [seeing] that.” She also loves it when students she had in the past stay in touch, whether socially or for schoolwork or career advice. The only challenge is learning to channel her time, which is a limited resource. “But it’s a good challenge,” she says.

Although she is a professor, she is not the only one teaching. She explains that she has learned a lot from being a teacher and professor. She says that she always makes sure her students are actively involved in their learning . She also learned to respect their lives outside of the classroom because their circumstances affect their activities inside the classroom, just as a teacher’s life can affect their job performance. “[I also learned] to be a good listener…teachers love to talk!” she says with a laugh.

Debra is grateful and honored to receive the Part-Time Lecturers Professional Development Fund award.  She would like to thank Dr. Sara Becker, Director of the Teacher Preparation Program, and Dr. Mary Bravo, Associate Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Department of Psychology, who both supported her and encouraged her to apply to the PTL Professional Development Fund.


Written By Rebecca Grubb