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Choosing Joy: A Mathematical Exception for an ACE Teacher

Monday, October 31, 2016 by Madeleine Coutre - ACE 22, Memphis

ACE Teaching Fellows Choose Joy

The first thing that my students notice when they walk into the classroom is the large sign that shouts, “CHOOSE JOY” above the front whiteboard. Just like last year, I enjoyed waiting the first couple days it took for a student to finally ask (usually without raising their hand, and in the middle of a very important lesson), “Miss Coutre, why does it say “CHOOSE JOY” in the front of the classroom?”

Madeleine Coutre ACE Teaching Fellows Choose JoyI’m SO glad you asked.

While “Joy” may be my middle name, that has by no means made finding JOY any easier. I used to think that to find true happiness, I had to make constant sacrifices for it. It did not seem possible that JOY could be something that was freely given to me and that could be all around me. That just wouldn’t make sense with the way I worked to find JOY.

Looking back on my first year of ACE, I thought achieving JOY equaled filling my daily schedule to the brink:

  1. Get up at 4:30 a.m. (sorry, I’m a morning person!)
  2. Squeeze in some extra planning.
  3. Make coffee at 6 a.m.
  4. Head out the door no later than 6:19 a.m.
  5. Arrive at school around 6:30 a.m. to sit in the parking lot until I’m let in at 6:50 a.m. by the janitor (after which I then sprinted­–yes, sprinted–to my classroom).
  6. Prepare until the last minute and then teach straight from 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a short 20-minute break at the end of the day.
  7. Prepare for my seven preps with the remaining hours in the day (with the scheduled break for community dinner and/or meeting).
  8. Continue working and preparing scaffolded note sheets until around 11 p.m.
  9. REPEAT.

And don’t think I left my weekends open. Weekends just meant more hours to work. So I continued this way for most of the next year, getting more and more exhausted, falling into bed later and later each night (even taking naps at 11 p.m. WHO DOES THAT?). I kept telling myself, "Teaching is a marathon. I’m not really going to start feeling good, feeling the JOY that I’m expecting, until I experience some pain and hardship first.” I kept telling myself I just wasn’t at the good part yet.

But the JOY never came. I felt the dreaded inklings of “burn-out” enter my system. I was working so hard and with my hard work came questions of frustration. Why wasn’t God rewarding me with the JOY I thought I deserved?   My perfect "JOY equation" was not adding up.

Coutre Choose Joy EnergizedIt wasn’t until a day in late spring that I finally realized I could no longer live up to the crazy schedule and demands that I thought JOY required. Instead, something inside me spoke up and said, “Let go. Just let go. Who are you doing all of this for?”

It was a question that we probably have all asked ourselves, and sometimes we find that the center of our answer is not always directed towards God. As for me, yes, I was doing it for my students, my school, and, of course, myself … but I definitely was leaving out that most important someone.

I always tell my students, "Mistakes are our friends." And, boy, did realizing this mistake make a difference. As I took more time to be rested, my filter-less middle schoolers were even so blunt as to point out, “Miss Coutre, you don’t look so tired anymore!”

"We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already totally in the presence of God."

And of course I responded, “Well, can I get an AMEN?”

“AMEN!” My students responded, with rolled eyes and laughs.

As Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Even though I was able to play the “energizer-bunny-teacher” and engage my students and connect with my community members and make them smile, I was missing the influence of God’s presence in those moments.

In the end, I realized that I needed the constant reminder to "CHOOSE JOY" as much as my students did. So, in order to keep that JOY and awareness of God’s presence as the forefront of our everyday life, I put back up my “CHOOSE JOY” sign for Year 2 (because, as we know, teachers tend to forget things unless they write them down :-)). 

Looking to put some JOY in your life next year? Apply to ACE Teaching Fellows! Start your journey at ace.nd.edu/teach