Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item Turbotville Elementary art teacher Alyssa Pittenger passes out materials to kindergarten students Crosby Usher, left, Devlynn Williams and Emma Long so they can start their project.

Lindsay Weaver used to work as a paralegal.

Now she lays down the law of language for her Danville Middle School students.

Alyssa Pittenger was in fashion management and visual merchandising for the Nordstrom department store in King of Prussia then in Rockville, Maryland. That was before she started sharing her artistic talents with young students at Turbotville Elementary School.

Jennifer Straub was a theater actress who once worked with Sally Struthers and with Sherman Hemsley. She performs in front of her eighth-graders at Midd-West High School.

Those teachers are among a number of Valley educators who started out in vastly different careers but gravitated toward teaching.

The state does not keep data on how many teachers first worked in unrelated careers, said Eric Levis, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 

He did say those thinking of a mid-career change to teaching can obtain an intern certificate, which authorizes them to teach while simultaneously enrolled in an approved intern program while they earn a teaching certificate. 

"While the internship is considered the non-traditional route for people switching careers, not everyone choosing to switch careers goes this route, so the numbers we provide aren’t comprehensive," Levis said. "Currently there are 150 active/valid intern certificates for 2019-20."

Mark DiRocco, former superintendent at Lewisburg Area School District, witnessed the advantage teachers gained from varied life experiences before leading classrooms.

"In my time in Lewisburg, we hired people who came from different careers," said DiRocco, now executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. "They became excellent teachers."

He said Van Wagner, of Danville, is a perfect example.

Wagner worked in a coal mine in Pennsylvania and later as a logger in Idaho before he started teaching environmental science at Lewisburg Area High School. DiRocco said it's pretty common for teachers to come from other careers.

"He is extremely talented and very passionate," DiRocco said. "You can just tell this is what he wants to do, this is what he wants to be."

Wagner said his previous experiences have made him a better teacher, especially since he teaches environmental science.

The same goes for Brad Newlin, a Warrior Run High School math teacher. He previously worked as a civil engineer and spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

Brian Catherman was a recreation specialist in the federal prison system before he became an anatomy and physiology teacher and coach at Selinsgrove Area High School.

DiRocco said those in other careers who decide to go into teaching usually decide they want to do something more meaningful. Their past experience makes them more rounded.  

"Anytime when you have life experience on top of your book knowledge and content, and they bring that into the classroom, they're a little more confident," DiRocco said.

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item Danville Middle School teacher Lindsay Weaver teaches English Language Arts to her sixth grade class.

New spin on career 

Weaver, 31, originally wanted to work in public relations and earned a  degree in communication studies, with a minor in French, from Bloomsburg University.

"My intent at the time was to work in politics or business," she said. 

She wanted to know "how to spin a story in a positive way."

Weaver, who was adopted, ended up interning over one summer with her biological grandfather Joseph Trotta's law firm, Trotta, Trotta and Trotta, in New Haven, Connecticut. 

"I wanted to get to know him better," she said. "I fell in love with the law."

She enjoyed helping people that way. She didn't want to be an attorney, though, especially after she researched the cost of law school.

Besides, "I liked, not so much the attorney work, but the legwork," she said.

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item Danville Middle School ELA teacher Lindsay Weaver.

She earned a master's in paralegal studies from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and worked as a paralegal with firms near Baltimore and in Scranton, Bloomsburg and Lock Haven.

After about five years, Weaver became unhappy and earned a master's in curriculum and instruction. Her mother, Virginia Bower, tried to discourage her from going into teaching, but Weaver became a teacher anyway, temporarily filling her mother's French teaching position at Milton Area High School. Her mother, who had taught in Lewisburg and Millville, was pulled out of retirement to teach in Milton, Weaver said.

What Weaver loves most about teaching is her students.

"They bring such an interesting perspective to life," she said. "They have great questions. To see how they think through the problems of the world, the relationships with them."

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item Turbotville Elementary art teacher Alyssa Pittenger talks with students in her class about their project.

From fashion to the classroom

Pittenger, 32, a Muncy native who lives in Catawissa, is in her second year of teaching at Turbotville, in the Warrior Run School District. She left the merchandising business after her job changed.

"The thing I loved about my job was the visual merchandise setup," she said.

When she got to do less and less of that work and more management, she decided to change jobs.

"I decided if I'm going to do something for the rest of my life, I should enjoy it," she said.

Pittenger, who learned about sewing, garment structure and fashion design at Philadelphia University, studied art education at Penn State University. She was certified to teach kindergarten through 12th grade and now teaches kindergarten through fourth grade. The fourth-grade students are in the middle school, where Pittenger starts her day. She loves seeing what her students can imagine and put down on paper.

"I love the stories behind the artwork," she said.

Her favorite part of teaching young children?

"Probably the little moments — I can talk to the kids and listen to their story, the story and what they came up with," she said. "It brings it alive for me."

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Jennifer Straub, seen here in the kitchen of her Selinsgrove home, is a former actress who now is an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Midd-West High School.

School production

Straub originally headed for a teaching career — sort of. She earned her theater and teaching degree from Shippensburg University, because her parents were not OK with her just majoring in theater.

She began her acting career with the Popcorn Hat Players in Harrisburg.

"I started with Popcorn Hat a couple of years right after college," said Straub, 40, of Selinsgrove.

She performed for the Mishar Productions Capitol Dinner Theatre, in Harrisburg, full-time for five years.

"I wanted to do acting," Straub, a Halifax native, said. "It's where my passion lay. I realized it's hard to pay the bills unless you are willing to sleep on people's couches or move somewhere else. I lived at home at the time."

She said the actors also helped seat and serve people at the dinner-theater. Some of the troupe sometimes traveled to perform in Hartford, Connecticut and Laughlin, Nevada.

Then she met her husband, Joe, and the commute to Harrisburg was getting longer. She substitute taught for five years before landing her current job as an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Midd-West. She's been there for 12 years.

Eight years ago they had a daughter, Emma, who due to medical issues was a Children's Miracle Network "spokes kid." 

There are a lot of similarities between acting and teaching, Straub said.

"When you are a teacher, it's like you're performing on your own little mini stage for your students," she said. "You have to go off script quite frequently. It's an interactive audience. You never know what they're going to throw at you."

She also is co-adviser to the drama club at school and has choreographed the school's musicals since she was a substitute.

"I do miss it," she said. "It's definitely something I loved. I'm a singer, I'm a dancer." 

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Sally Struthers poses with Jennifer Straub during a break in a performance.

The high point of her stage career was at the Mishar theater in Harrsiburg. She performed with Sally Struthers, known for her roles in “All in the Family” and “Gilmore Girls,” in the musical revue “Sugar Babies.” Straub was a dancer in the show. She choreographed and was featured dancer in “The Wiz,” with Sherman Hemsley, best known for his portrayal as George Jefferson on “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.”

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Jennifer Straub with Sherman Hemsley

"Sally was a very outgoing performer," Straub said, while Hemsley, in contrast with his TV character, was quiet and kept to himself during his time at the theater.

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Lewisburg Area High School environmental science teacher Van Wagner looks for signs of the eels that had burrowed under the gravel in his classroom aquarium. 

Mining for a job

Wagner, 43, had done some teaching as a long-term substitute in Schuylkill County. It was not permanent and the pay wasn't that good.

"One of my students said you ought to come work for my dad," Wagner recalled.

Her father had a coal hole in Good Spring.

Wagner needed a federal certificate from Mine Safety and Health then began work as a mine laborer, a job he did for a year.

The work 500 feet beneath the earth was difficult and dusty. The miners drilled holes and packed them with dynamite, blasted the coal out and loaded it onto a buggy. 

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Environmental science teacher Van Wagner, who also is a musician, shows the Harmony guitar his boss gave him as his final pay when Wagner left his job as a logger in Idaho. He said his employer didn't have the money to pay him.

He was paid $2.50 per ton. A good day was 20 to 30 tons for a group of three miners.

"There were usually three of us working together," Wagner said. "One or two guys drilled and blasted, another pushed the buggy and dumped into the counter shoot to then be hoisted to the surface."

"At the time, subs (substitute teachers) were paid $45 a day," Wagner said.

It was life-changing, he said, and he knew he wasn't going to do it forever.

"People asked how come you're a coal miner," Wagner said. "I have a lot of enthusiasm for the history of Pennsylvania coal mining."

He lost his enthusiasm for mining after he looked around and realized those around him either had been injured or had a family member who had been killed in the mines.

He went back to teaching in the Pine Grove schools, then his wife landed a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho.

"Teaching jobs started at $16,000," Wagner said. "I couldn't find one anyway. I had done some logging. I knew how to run a saw."

So he worked for the U.S. Forest Service thinning out dead wood in the Sawtooth Mountains in the Rockies. The dozen employees were too far into the woods to go back to town every night, so they slept out under the stars.

He knew he wanted to come back to Pennsylvania. His first full-time teaching job was in Pine Grove, where some of the kids just wanted to be coal miners. He tried to dissuade them, based on his experience.

"Some of them listened to me," Wagner said.

Wagner, who lives in the Danville area with his wife and two sons, also is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded 25 CDs. He said, though, he wanted to stay in Pennsylvania rather than pursue a music career in Nashville or California. He majored in wildlife and fisheries science.

"Of all of the jobs, teaching is the most challenging and the most rewarding," he said. "It's mentally and physically exhausting. And emotionally."

He said teaching is not a career, it's a lifestyle.

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Robert Inglis/The Daily Item Warrior Run High School math teacher Brad Newlin was a civil engineer before making a career change.

Engineering a new career

Newlin, 45, of Lewisburg, is in his fourth year of teaching, his third at Warrior Run.

"Even though I was a civil engineer, I knew I wanted to be in the classroom," said Newlin, who helped develop water resources during his time in the Peace Corps from 2000 to 2002.

He earned his undergraduate and master's degrees in civil engineering at the University of California at Davis before working in that field from 1998 to 2015. He earned another master's from Penn State before going into teaching.

"The kids are fun, interesting," Newlin said.

He said his background in engineering helps him as a teacher. He feels he would have struggled more if he had gone into teaching as a young man.

"It is a job that is extremely challenging and I truly enjoy," said Newlin, who teaches algebra I, statistics and computer science. 

A physical job

Catherman tried to go into teaching when he was young but couldn't find a job. 

Paralegal, logger, actress ... teacher: Some take winding path to front of the classroom

Brian Catherman, Selinsgrove Area

"I had gone to Lock Haven University to be health and physical education teacher," he said. "When I graduated, I applied all over Pennsylvania and at that time there were no jobs out there. I applied to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and got a job at FCI Schuylkill as a recreation specialist and after a year transferred to the USP at Allenwood as an assistant supervisor of recreation."

After eight years with the prison system, he wanted to make a change. That's when he was hired at Selinsgrove Area High School.

"I have taught anatomy and physiology, power weights and physical education," Catherman said. "I also coached track and field, cross country and wrestling over my 21 years of teaching. I was also the athletic director for eight years while teaching at Selinsgrove." 

He knew he wanted to teach early on. As a junior in high school, he enjoyed teaching swimming lessons at the Selinsgrove Community Pool. From there he knew that physical education would someday be a career, he said. 

"I think the best part of teaching is the students," Catherman said. "I really enjoy teaching something and see their reaction or see them succeed. I like the high school students because you can relate to them and what they are going through, on a daily basis. Teaching them life lessons that someday they will use as an adult."

He said the profession is very rewarding when students return and tell him that the things he taught them helped them in college and beyond.

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