Finding Joy, at School and in LifeSeptember 15, 2022
2021 Maine Milken Educator Jamie Karaffa, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland, presented this speech to district colleagues at RSU16 just before the start of the 2022-23 school year.
When I was asked to give a speech on joy, I felt like an imposter. Joy is the thing I have struggled with the most as a teacher. How could I stand in front of the entire district, on a day when we are all wishing we were still on summer vacation, and speak about a topic I’m not an expert on?
Someone suggested using a story of my own. And that’s when I realized that I actually know a lot about finding joy in the classroom.
On January 1, 2017, my soon-to-be fiance Steve passed away. Up to that point I had watched Whittier staff rally around colleagues as they experienced some really tough situations. People always stepped up and did whatever was needed to be there for them. Never once had I thought I would be next.
When Steve died, a retired teacher reached out and told me she would sub for as long as I needed her. Other staff made sure that she had everything she needed not only to take over my class, but also to take on National History Day, a difficult project for any teacher. Everyone else reached out with love, cards, calls, visits, gifts and food.
When I returned to school I knew I had lost my joy of life, and this carried over into my joy of teaching. For the next year or so I was going through the motions. I dreaded so many days. There were times I wished I had any other career. I even thought my teaching career might be over.
But being surrounded by people who would do anything to help me find my joy—that brought me joy. Whittier staff was always there to pick me up and guide me through. They would say, “What can I do to help?” If I didn’t know how to respond, they would do something anyway. They carried me through that time without wanting anything in return, probably not realizing how much I needed them. They reminded me of my strengths and that students needed someone like me. When I struggled, they picked me up with jokes or took on a duty I was dreading. They also taught me to forgive myself for not always being my best.
When I received my Milken Educator Award last spring, I was asked to give a speech on the spot (probably the hardest moment of my career). All I could say was that this wasn’t my award. It was Whittier’s award. At that moment I couldn’t articulate it—but I wouldn’t have survived my own heartache and rediscovered joy without the people in my school.
Why am I sharing this story with you? We all know the joy we get from teaching and being with the kids, but I wanted to remind everyone that we truly need each other to find joy as well—possibly now more than ever.
We need to lean into supporting one another. We have positions that need to be filled, many new employees, some very strong and different opinions from society about what is currently happening in and around education, rules and laws being created around our state and country about what can and can’t be taught in the classroom, more absent students then we’ve ever seen before. And that’s on top of the usual struggles. We can’t control everything going on in and out of education, but we can control the way we support each other.
I genuinely believe that we can find joy in school through each other. The more joy we bring to each other, the more joy we will bring into the classroom. The more joy our students feel, the more they will want to be there and the more they will engage in their education.
Last Christmas I asked for “The Book of Joy,” in which the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu share stories and insights to help answer an important question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? I heard about this book and was instantly fascinated when I read that they “have survived more than 50 years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.”
One of the questions Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama were asked: So how can people cultivate that sense of joy as a way of being, and not just a temporary feeling? The book discusses mental joy, not just the physical feeling we get when we are happy or joyful. There will always be pain, grief and hardships, but mental joy is what helps people through those challenges.
These two brilliant men believe that three habits have the greatest influence on increasing our mental joy.
1. Reframe situations in a positive light.
We are able to view our lives in any way we choose. We can use positivity and gratitude to look for the good in any situation. According to the book, “A healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world.”
It’s hard to find the good in some awful situations, but if we look at things with different perspectives we can get through those tough times. For example, realizing others go through similarly tough situations connects us. Going through anything together is easier than going through anything alone.
According to two different studies, people who say “I, me, mine” more frequently than “we, us, ours” are more likely to be depressed and die from heart attacks. That absolutely blew my mind. This school year let’s focus on being “we” and “us.” As the Dalai Lama said, “When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face—together.” Let’s connect, on whatever level we need, to be there for each other and our students. Let’s strive to see things in a positive light.
2. Focus on gratitude.
We can all be grateful for the good in our schools. There are amazing teachers at Whittier who inspire me daily. I have great relationships with colleagues who put a smile on my face on a regular basis. I’m grateful for a support staff that works tirelessly to make everyone’s day better. I’m grateful for a principal who supports me as a teacher and as a person, and who understands the value of my subject. I’m grateful for a superintendent and an assistant superintendent who genuinely care and understand that a district is made up of students, parents, and staff, and that we all matter. I’m grateful for all of my students—watching them grow and learn, but also learning from them. It is amazing that you can spend years as a teacher and still learn so much from kids. I hope you all take the time to reflect on the things you are grateful for in your own school.
3. Choose to be kind and generous.
Teachers are naturally kind and generous people—it’s required for the work we do. But there are moments when we get so wrapped up in our own situations (in or out of school) that we may not be as kind or generous as we could be. There is a Tibetan saying: “Wherever you have friends, that's your country. Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.” I believe we can make our schools a home full of joy for our students and for each other if we are generous and give each other love and understanding.
Both Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama agree that finding joy cannot happen by yourself. If you search for it alone not only are you selfish, but you will never find it. Only those who depend on others are there for each other. Only those who care about others can cultivate joy.
Let’s go into this new school year working together with a positive attitude, reminding ourselves what we are grateful for, and finding within ourselves the kindness and generosity needed to cultivate joy.
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