Stories from the Classroom: Joel


Joel Ryan Lee, a 2013 Fellow, speaks honestly about the many challenges he faces as a teacher and leader in a high-need classroom. Education inequity is often overwhelming but despite the tough stuff, he remains positive. Joel maintains an incredible sense of possibility and wholehearted belief that he can make a difference in helping his students do more than dream.

Joel Lee, 2013 Fellow

“Many of my students are perpetually sleepy and lazy in class. When I arrive into my most underperforming Form 4 class, I almost always find a bunch of students sleeping on the table. My policy is to never let any of my students sleep in my class so I wake them up.

Today, there was this one kid who wouldn’t budge. He just lazily perked his head up and muttered something in Chinese exclaiming that he was lazy every time I asked him to do his work. 35 minutes into the class and the transparent glass of water on a table he was supposed to draw was still in its infancy stages. No amount of pep talk or encouragement worked.

At that point I got furious so I made him look me in the eyes and asked him (a little too sternly perhaps), “TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT?! Do you want a teacher who cares?! Or do you want a teacher who does not care about you?!! Because I care about you, that’s why I’m waking you up! And I will not let you waste your life away by not even trying. Do you understand me!?” His eyes started tearing up a little and he reached to wipe it off. It was as if he had never heard anybody express any sort of care or affection for him in his life. Very softly he muttered, “I’m sorry, teacher” and he tried for a while. I acknowledged his work and then tended to the other students. Later on when I got back to him I found his book closed again. He looked at the floor with a defeatist attitude and shook his head gently. “I’m too stupid.” I was so disappointed and felt like such a failure.

After class while sharing with the other teachers, I found out that he had troubles with other teachers as well and that his older sister who has now graduated secondary school was even worse in class. His sister would cut herself with the glass taken from the windows. It turns out he has serious family problems at home.

I hate education inequity.”