The Working Waterfront

What keeps this teacher on the job

Island school offers personal student impact

By Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2022-12-19
Last Modified 2022-12-19

The number 18 has a certain significance in Jewish numerology. The letters used in writing the Hebrew word chai—life—are assigned the numbers ten and eight. Monetary donations and gifts are often given in multiples of 18, and 18 is associated with life and luck.

This is the 18th year we’ve lived on North Haven, and my 18th year as a teacher at North Haven Community School. I have one colleague left from my first year as a teacher and have seen more colleagues come and go than I can count.

We were asked recently to consider what factors lead to teacher retention and longevity, and while I don’t have any universal answers, I know what has worked for me.

Working with students from their first day of school until they graduate is an incredible privilege.

For better or worse, living in the (very small) community in which you teach forces your coworkers, students, and the community at large to get to know you as a person as well as a teacher. That could sometimes feel scary and invasive, but when I was given opportunities to teach content that directly connected to my experiences—a rock band class, or a English class focused on memoir—it made me feel as though I specifically had something offer to the job, rather than any ol’ music teacher. Those opportunities have come up pretty consistently, and help the work feel fresh.

Opportunities to do something authentic, rather than just engage with content theoretically, have also helped me stay in this job for as long as I have.

September 2005, the start of my teaching career, was also the time when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated New Orleans. With the administration’s permission, I launched an all-jazz curriculum for my first six weeks as a teacher and shared the students’ work (along with Maine jazz greats Brad Terry and Cassidy Holden) at a benefit concert for Habitat for Humanity.

Filmmaking, whale-building, service projects, a weekly video news program, and performing at professional baseball and hockey games have kept the work I do with my students meaningful.

As challenging as teaching K-12 can be, and as much as I may sometimes wish I were a member of a department, working with students from their first day of school until they graduate is an incredible privilege. Some of them love music from day one and some of them never find their groove, but when it clicks, I get to be there and help foster their engagement, whether it’s band, chorus, acoustic guitar, or punk rock.

I even had the recent pleasure of a former student who rolled his eyes every time I told him how well he could sing in middle school chorus performing a set with his exquisitely talented partner at Turner Farm.

Teaching is one of those professions that necessitates a certain amount of passion to offset the challenges of sometimes onerous requirements, high turnover rates, middling salary, and difficult interactions with parents and community members. I’m not sure I can promise another 18 years, but sitting down and reminding myself of some of the unique joys of Maine’s smallest K-12 public school will keep me going for a while longer.

Courtney Naliboff teaches music, drama, and writing at North Haven Community School.