Retiring teacher’s connection with students goes beyond art

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Her students simply call her “Q”.

But, there is nothing simple about the relationship between middle school art teacher Katherine Quackenbush-Blair and her students.

With a personality as big as her Farrah Fawcett hair, she has been bringing out the best in her students for more than three decades.

“She doesn’t teach you how to draw, she teaches you how to see things,” accelerated art student Benjamin Huckans said.

Her warm smile and infectious laugh have made her popular among staff and students. After 31 years of teaching for Broadalbin-Perth Central Schools, Quackenbush-Blair is retiring at the end of the year.

"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life." John Lennon

Quackenbush-Blair keeps this quote on her self-portrait.

Her name has been synonymous with accelerated eighth-grade art for about 10 years. While regular eighth-grade art is a half-year course, accelerated art is a full-year program that offers a high school credit. Students are assigned more challenging projects like self-portraits, one-point perspectives, stipple and observational drawing.

Teaching with genuine care, Quackenbush-Blair is able to connect with her students in a unique way that goes beyond art.

“Each kid has a personality,” Quackenbush-Blair said. “You have to listen to their worries and build on not so much their art, but their insecurities.”

“She’s a friend,” student Krystal Negron said. “You can talk to her about anything.”

Quackenbush-Blair encourages creativity by allowing students to be themselves. She permits earphones in class, even if it’s “head-banging” music. However, don’t confuse freedom for lack of expectations. She sets high standards and strict rules.

At the beginning of each school year, she makes her 24 hand-picked accelerated art students sign a contract. No gum. No candy. No saying “I can’t.”

“She tells me to do harder things because she knows I can do it,” eighth-grader Maddalena Minkler said. “She’s always supportive.”

“When things are easy it’s fun because you can be good at it, but it’s even more fun when you have to go through that process of trying to improve,” eighth-grader Haleigh Hayes said. “The end results really pay off.”

The end of Quackenbush-Blair’s tenure is approaching fast. With a grin, she counts down the number of school days remaining. However, it is apparent that the incredible bond she has forged with her students will make walking away bittersweet.

“It’s hard,” Quackenbush-Blair said, her voice breaking. “Recently, a sixth grader came up to me and said ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life to have you.’ I had to go in the back room and gather myself.”

At age 58, she is retiring earlier than normal in honor of her brother, Danny. He passed away of a heart attack at 65.

“This life is no dress rehearsal,” Quackenbush-Blair said. “I’ll miss [teaching], but it’s time.”

Over the years, she’s received phone calls from former students, sometimes at midnight. The topics ranged, but most had nothing to do with art. She doesn’t worry about those connections coming to an end when she retires.

“That I won’t miss because the relationships will last,” Quackenbush-Blair said.