When school is out, many teachers take off on a new path

By Paige Harden
Photography by Josh Marshall

Every spring, children in classrooms across the country begin the countdown to summer. Even with the balanced calendar, the eight-week summer break is the longest of the year. For teachers, the break also offers them a reason to be excited: Summer brings opportunities to explore, to learn and to grow.

A Long-Distance Lesson

In 2011, Nina Phagan started a summer journey that has pushed her in ways she never imagined possible. Each year, she requires her students at Perry Meridian Middle School to complete a project in which they do something they’ve never done before.

“I didn’t want to just assign the project. I wanted to do it with them,” says Phagan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher. “The first year, I researched motorcycle history and completed all safety courses to obtain my motorcycle license. I wanted to encourage my students to pursue their dreams, just like I was.”

The following year, she took her project another step forward. She applied for and received a grant from the Eli Lilly Teacher Creativity Program to ride her motorcycle across the country. She named her project “Get My Motor Runnin’—Experiencing the American West on Steel Horses.”

Phagan drove her motorcycle, sometimes in the rain, more than 5,500 miles in 26 days. She made countless stops at national parks and sites on the National Register of Historic Places so she could document her trip and use handson lessons in her classroom. She updated her blog, phagansonsteelhorses.blogspot.com, often so students could follow her progress.

“It was the biggest adventure of my life,” Phagan says. “But it tested my physical and emotional stamina and strength. I wasn’t sure if I could finish the cross-country trip after being sunburned, frozen and beaten by the wind.”

Along her journey, she stopped at several national treasures, including Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, Sandhills Scenic Byway, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon and Arches National Park.

“I am a different person now than I was before I took that trip,” Phagan says. “I originally planned on the trip teaching me more about our country. It did teach me more about our country and its beautiful landscapes, but it taught me more about myself than I ever would have imagined. It taught me that I can do anything.”

It also changed her as a teacher.

“I now empower my students and show them that they can do anything they want if they work hard,” she says. “I tell them how scared I was, how I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it and that I almost quit. I think it inspires them. I think I have opened up worlds for students that they didn’t know existed. They are inspired now to go, to see and to experience the world.”

Phagan says she thinks her project has also helped her students become more engaged in her U.S. history lessons. “I think my stories of the country interest them,” she explains. “I think seeing my blog makes history more real to them.”

Phagan again drove her motorcycle west during the summer of 2013. In 2014, she plans to drive east to follow history trails through Philadelphia, Boston and countless historical sites.

“These trips have strengthened me in so many ways,” she says. “They have also reinforced my desire to teach the whole child, heart and soul, not just U.S. history.”

Building a Future

During the school year, Brian Luse teaches calculus, probability, statistics, discrete mathematics and geometry at Franklin Community High School. During the summer, he also uses his math skills at the helm of his own business, Luse Custom Construction, LLC.

“We build anything from a small deck to an entire house,” Luse says. “I try to hire students to work with me in the summer. At the end of the day, I will put the math of the project we completed on paper and hand it to the student and say, ‘Take this to your buddies and show them how you used math today.’”

Luse says the road to where he is today was anything but straight.

He graduated from Trine University in Angola with a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked as a mechanical engineer for six years, and in his free time he coached high school baseball. He also volunteered to visit a middle school once a week to talk about business fundamentals. “I was a teacher for an hour a day, once a week,” he says. “That opportunity showed me that teaching was what I was meant to do.”

Luse continued to work as an engineer while he went back to school to earn his teaching certificate. He took his first teaching job at Pioneer High School, where his mother once taught. “I was spoiled growing up because both of my parents were teachers,” he says. “We had a great life because we could go on vacations and do things that other families couldn’t do because my parents had school breaks. After living the life of an engineer for a few years, I knew that wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted to have for my future family. ”

As a teacher at Pioneer, Luse accepted the position of head baseball coach at Indian Creek High School. While coaching, he met Alex Girdley, who would change his life forever. Girdley was a teacher and track coach at Indian Creek. He also built homes in the summer and hired Luse to help.

“We started at sunup and didn’t quit until 5 p.m.,” Luse says. “I really liked working outside, the physical part of the job and being able to walk away from a project and see the finished product. The extra cash came in handy, too.”

Girdley and Luse quickly became good friends. “It was so much fun working with Alex,” Luse says. “He took the time to teach me the trade. He also was very patient teaching the students that he hired to help.”

In 2002, a brain tumor took Girdley’s life prematurely. Luse finished the projects Girdley was working on prior to his death, and the memory of his friend inspired him to eventually start his own construction company.

“When I was working with Alex, it never entered my mind that I would want to own my own business,” he says. “I just enjoyed showing up every day and finishing the list of instructions. I was so fortunate to have worked with Alex. I learned everything from him.”

Now, Luse says, he has the best of both worlds. “I get to do what I love during the nine months of the year that I’m teaching math, but I also have the opportunity to do something different.”

The change in pace is rejuvenating. “It keeps me positive in both of my jobs,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to switch gears. In August I know it’s time to put the tools in the shed and break out the textbooks.”

In Plain Language

Jill Hamilton says she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. “I love finding ways to break down information and finding logical connections between ideas,” she says. “Growing up, I loved school and was very blessed to have plenty of great teachers as role models.”

Hamilton graduated from college with a degree in elementary education with an endorsement in middle school social studies. Not long after graduating, she began an AmeriCorps assignment working with English as Second Language students.

“I loved it, so I went back to school to get a master’s degree in ESL,” Hamilton says. “Along the way, I decided to become licensed in language arts, Spanish and math.”

She now teaches Spanish, ESL and character education at Greenwood Middle School. “I love that every day is a new challenge and a new opportunity to impact students’ lives,” she says.

“I love the insight that my students have and the way they keep me on my toes. Every day you have the opportunity to challenge yourself and your students in new ways.”

Hamilton believes some parents might not realize all that goes into a teacher’s day. “By the time the first bell rings, there are days that I’ve not just prepared for classes, but talked to parents, sewn a ripped sweater and lent an ear to a student who is upset about something that happened outside of school,” she explains. “Teachers are not just educators, but surrogate mothers, mentors, cheerleaders, disciplinarians and social workers. That’s why our jobs are so exciting and absolutely never boring.”

The substantial demands placed upon teachers make summer break critical, says Hamilton, who spends her summers working at La Plaza, an Indianapolis-based organization that provides Latino families with access to health and social services and educational programs. The center helps prepare Latino students for educational success. She teaches students who are transitioning from first to second grade.

“I love summer break because it gives me an opportunity to do something really different than my normal routine,” she says. “With so much pressure during the school year to achieve, it’s fun to have time in the summer to just play with kids, rather than trying to push them to hit the next benchmark.”

Teaching at La Plaza helps Hamilton in her middle school classroom. “Getting the opportunity to speak Spanish with native speakers really helps keep my Spanish skills sharp,” she explains. “And most of the teachers come from different school districts, so it’s also nice just to have the opportunity to talk with each other about different ideas and strategies that other schools are using.”