The Working Waterfront

Out of my lane—pinch-hitting as art teacher

Creativity, preparation, and the all-important ‘pivot’

By Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2023-05-12
Last Modified 2023-05-12

As I settle into middle age, I find I can enjoy a sense of easy competency in most of the things I do. After 18 years of teaching and directing plays, I no longer fret over every detail, but can plan more generally and pivot and problem-solve as needed.

I can load the woodstove and revive the fire from a few embers. I can make dinner from the often random-feeling assortment of ingredients available on the island. I can even parallel park on Main Street (sometimes).

My complacency was shaken recently when I was suddenly pushed very far out of my lane. The school art teacher, my friend and frequent collaborator, was suddenly faced with a long-term absence.

A real art teacher would have thought to put smocks on the students and cover the tables…

She and I have been co-teaching an integrated arts class for the elementary school this year, along with the world language teacher. We had a recent shake-up there as well, switching from Spanish, a language I’m comfortable in, to French, which I am definitely not.

We brought in an art substitute teacher, Fiona of Bait Bag fame, and things went wonderfully for a while. I started learning French, she taught the students print-making, and while I missed my friend, I was still reasonably in my comfort zone. But when Fiona caught the school upper respiratory crud, the French teacher and I realized we would suddenly have to teach art.

I love making art, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of making a mess, too. I’m just not an art teacher. Neither is the French teacher, who was co-teaching with me.

Even with our 48 combined years of teaching experience, when we passed each other in the hallway that morning, we took a moment to psych ourselves up. We knew how to teach. We could do this!

We had two lessons planned—mask-making and print-making. We had submitted an order for mask-making materials with plenty of time for them to arrive—or so we thought.

The first wrinkle of the day found me spelunking in the depths of the art closet for backup supplies which didn’t materialize. No matter. We were pros. We could pivot.

The mask-making class went shockingly smoothly. Some students opted to wait for the missing materials, while others were happy to get started with what we had available. Like us, they could pivot.

Print-making was where my deficiencies as an art teacher really showed up. The kids had fun and made prints, sure. But a real art teacher would have thought to put smocks on the students and cover the tables, preventing the moment when my colleague and I realized with horror that the students had inked every surface—hands, faces, clothes. The entire classroom looked like it had endured an attack from a legion of octopods and squid.

We hosed them down as best we could and sent them back to their classrooms, then turned our attention to the classroom itself. As we scrubbed, the principal stopped by to see how we had fared.

“I don’t want to be an art teacher!” I wailed, up to my elbows in black suds. He laughed.

It’s a privilege of adulthood that we’re rarely asked to operate outside our lane. Even on North Haven, where most of us wear many hats, we usually have some say in how we help meet the needs of our community.

I go through life reasonably certain that I won’t suddenly be required to play volleyball, drive stick, or create a beautiful graphic design, and instead I can teach, play music, swim, cook, write, and be an EMT.

Kids are often asked or required to go outside their comfort zones, though, in the name of experiencing a little bit of a lot of things to help them understand what they like and want to do more of. I totally agree with it as a practice, but my recent experience reminds me to be a little more empathetic of the nerves it might provoke.

The real art teacher came back to work recently, and I’m a little more in awe of what she does, and a lot happier back in my own lane.

Courtney Naliboff teaches, plays music, and writes on North Haven. She may be reached at