The Teacher behind the Painting


Maayan Matsliah, Joie Evar, and Zoe Sun

Upon entering Tenafly High School on a dreary, dull morning, students may feel unenthusiastic to attend their repetitive classes. Walking down the empty, muted hallways, students can’t help but dread the gloomy day ahead of them. Suddenly, a wave of upbeat music is heard from across the hallway. Turning around, they try to figure out where the noise is coming from. Upon reaching Room 131, they look through the open door, finding one of the most uplifting classrooms in THS. Complete with vibrant colors and joyful students creatively collaborating, this room brings life back to the seemingly lifeless morning. Who might be behind this masterpiece of a classroom? Let us paint the picture of Ms. Lisa Allen for you. 

Fifteen years ago, Allen made her way to Tenafly after choosing to leave her advertising career in corporate America behind. This departure led her to find the fulfillment she had always longed for, but never expected: a career as an art teacher. After a childhood spent in Woodcliff Lake, four years at the University of Michigan, and living out her twenties first working in media, and then a Masters at Columbia University, she now lives in Haworth, New Jersey with her husband and four-year-old son, Michael. On top of being a new mom and a very hands-on teacher at THS, she is also the advisor for The Green Team, Key Club, and Art Club. While managing all of these responsibilities, she continuously leaves the same inspiring impression on Tenafly students. 

The fact that I wake up every day and I’m happy to go to work, and I’m excited about my job—I don’t know if any other job would do that for me

— Ms. Allen

Ms. Allen has a tight bond with her family. She did not have any first cousins, so family gatherings consisted mostly of her immediate family. “I still talk to my parents daily on the phone, and I see my brothers all the time,” she said. As a high school student, Allen always had a strong suit in mathematics, the sciences, and, of course, art: “I always took an art class,” Allen said. “I remember as a kid walking across the street from school to Ms. Fedison’s house, an art teacher that taught kids from her basement. I would go to the YMHA and take ceramics and art classes there. I was always doing something art related.” Nevertheless, art was never Allen’s idealcareer path. She attended college with intentions of becoming a doctor or perhaps a veterinarian. 

When Allen attended the University of Michigan, she first majored in pre-med. “Science had always come really easy to me,” she said. “But when I got to college, it just didn’t work for me, and I switched to psychology.” After her time at Michigan, Allen attended Columbia for grad school, studying organizational psychology, but after one semester, she wanted work experience in order to better plan for the future. She worked at the radio station Z100 for five years, and then continued at The New York Post for a year and a half. However, The Post was never Allen’s dream, which also made her come to a realization that she hated working for corporate America:  “I was really unhappy with my job. I hate putting on a suit and going into work.” 

Allen began to feel lost, not knowing what to do with her career until one day, her mother inspired her by saying, “Well, you always loved art. Why don’t you become an art teacher?” Remembering her interest in art as a child and adolescent, Allen knew exactly what she wanted to become. To this day, Allen has never lost interest in being an art teacher. “The fact that I wake up every day and I’m happy to go to work, and I’m excited about my job—I don’t know if any other job would do that for me,” she said, laughing joyfully. She admits to some regret for not pursuing medicine but knows that, at the end of the day, she is exactly where she needs to be.

Allen has now been an art teacher in Tenafly for 15 years and would not change a thing. She has also taken on many of the school’s most challenging clubs with the hope to help students make a difference. About co-advising the Key Club with Ms. Toale, Allen said, “I love doing service for others, it just makes me feel good.” Allen also became the new co-advisor of the Green Team with Mr. Angus. “Art is a really amazing way to make people think about the environment and sustainability,” she said. “There are a lot of opportunities to join art and science together, and I think by becoming an advisor at THS, we can make that happen,” she said. Students are also glad to have Allen as an advisor. “We are so excited to have Ms. Allen on board with us. She’s a great addition to our club and is opening the doors for so many creative opportunities,” said Co-President of the Green Team, Abby Kushman (’23).

Auspiciously, New Jersey has just created a requirement for sustainability in the art curriculum, which means that Allen will incorporate climate change into at least one project each year. Last year, her students created a sculpture by reusing Legos, later showcasing it in the library for the community to enjoy. Allen will continue to promote environmental awareness in her courses.

Yes, Allen’s role in school is quite large, but what about outside of school? Allen and her family just moved into their first home in February, which prompted a new passion for yard work: “It’s been a recent passion because it takes so much effort and continuous work. You can’t just do one day of yard work and be like, ‘I’m good.’ It’s something you have to keep up with… I’ve been doing a ton of planting and weeding, and I do little drawings of what I want to do with the yard,” she said. Allen inserts herself in yard work along with her other hobbies, including exercise, meditation, and journaling. Most importantly, she dedicates most of her free time to her son, mothering him with all of her love and wisdom she has learned throughout her life. 

The biggest piece of advice that Ms. Allen wishes she could have given her younger self, and now hopes to pass on to her son and students, is to be open to new people and experiences. “Some of the nicest people that I’ve met in my life are not necessarily the people I would have been friends with in my childhood,” Allen said. It was only during her transition from living in New York City to New Jersey that she realized how trivial the idea of ‘social status’ and worrying about others’ opinions truly was. She expresses how “the older you get, the more you realize that sometimes the most amazing people are maybe the ones that are quiet, look different, or have some awkward quirk. I just find myself connecting really well with people I never would have expected to connect with.” 

So, next time you’re walking by room 131, think about stopping in and saying hello. Experience the calm take over as you get to see the creation of some amazing art. The journey to a career is not always what you expect it to look like.