Q&A with Dr. Doris Lee: Part 1
Dr. Doris Lee is the founding Principal of Village Academy located in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY. As a tribute to Women's History Month, we asked Dr. Lee for an interview to learn more about her personal journey and the work she's doing both as a woman leader in her community and a changemaker in the education space. We're incredibly excited to share her responses and we hope you are inspired by her perseverance and vision!
1. As the founding principal of Village Academy, can you shed more light on how your journey into education began?
While riding the train one day, I saw a poster for the NYC Teaching Fellows. I did not have a job or place to live, and I was a new mother. Something in me lit-up and told me to apply. I applied that day at a local library and I registered to take the teaching exams before I was even accepted into the program. When I saw that poster, I knew teaching was my calling. I started my teaching career as a special education teacher in Brooklyn. It was the most challenging and rewarding decision I had ever made. I think the most important thing about this journey is that I see myself in my students. I see the good, the bad, and the ugly. I understand them and I think that is why I was called to do this work because my life prepared me to relate to the families I serve.
2. Purpose plays a significant role in what we do as individuals and the problems we seek to solve. How have you leveraged your passion and purpose into defining the type of work you’re involved with today, more specifically in the education space?
I am a product of New York City public schools. Unfortunately, I had many teachers who were not encouraging and made me question my self-worth. There were times I hated going to school because I did not connect with anyone: not my peers and not my teachers. However, my mother made school a priority. Growing up and living in public housing I knew that I wanted a better life and that education would support me in achieving my goal. There was also one teacher, my second-grade teacher, Ms. Pascal, who was kind and encouraging and also made me feel special. This one teacher had such an immense impact on my life. Thanks to education I am able to live a quality life.
My passion stems from my own educational experiences. My goal as a teacher was always to make my students feel valued, cared for, and loved. I was also able to make their parents partners in the process and value them for their efforts and commitment to our children. As the principal of Village Academy I want to make sure that none of my students go through school feeling unworthy, invisible or less than. I want every student to know their value. I also want to provide them with a quality of education that will allow them to live their best life. I want all of my students to have options and opportunities; I don’t ever want them to feel like their future is based on happenstance or that their present circumstance is a permanent condition.
3. Our unique near-peer mentoring model at Practice Makes Perfect remains one of the hallmarks of our summer program. Recognizing the critical role mentors play, how have you been able to leverage this for your personal development and career trajectory?
Mentors have played such a great role in my life and in shaping who I am as a leader. Each time I work under someone’s leadership I learn something new that I can use to be better. The best mentors have helped me to reflect on my beliefs, core values, and what I stand for and to solidify who I am as a person and as a leader. Great mentors also help you to see your true potential. My mother was my first mentor; she helped me to see that I have to respect myself before anyone else can respect me and that beauty is an inside-out quality. She also ensured that I knew the importance of education which is why I was the first to graduate with a bachelor, master, and doctorate degree in my family. In my professional career, I have also had many mentors that supported me in being my best self. As a teacher, it was one of my mentors—my principal at the time—who encouraged me to be a teacher leader, which in turn gave me the confidence to be a school leader. Having a mentor allows you to understand your possible future, develop a path, and follow the path.
Since becoming a leader I have now taken on the role of being a mentor. I find that one of the most rewarding parts of the work is to know you played a small role in someone else's success. I am inspired to continue to learn and grow so that I have something valuable to offer my mentees. The mentor-mentee relationship is mutually beneficial and inspires both parties to prosper which is why I am so excited about the near-peer mentoring model at Practice Makes Perfect!
4. You currently run a “Ladies with Purpose” club at Village Academy. In line with celebrating Women’s History Month, what is your take on opening up the space to include more women in positions of leadership and authority in our society?
I think that gender equality is still an issue in our society. Women are still underrepresented in many fields including STEM. Although more women are taking on leadership roles, there is still a gap with their male counterparts, and this gap expands when we look specifically at minority women. That is why it is so essential to provide our young girls with exposure and opportunity to explore potential careers. We must also work to build the self-esteem of our girls. There is a societal mental mindset related to women and how they should look and behave. When our girls do not fit into this, sometimes antiquated, mold they do not excel and they question their self-worth. We have to start as early as possible to build the self-esteem of our girls and break the beliefs about the traditional roles of women in our society. As women, we are also charged with mentoring, championing, and uplifting each other. We have the power to open the space for positions in leadership by replacing the spirit of competitiveness with supportiveness and working together to offer opportunities.
5. What advice would you offer to aspiring educators in terms of developing a career in the education space?
As an educator, you are helping to shape the future each day with your words and actions. The future president, a scientist that cures a terminal disease, someone who will solve world hunger, a future Nobel Prize recipient can all be sitting in your classroom. Your words and actions have the power to empower or destroy. When you enter a career in education you cannot do it for money or job security. You have to go into teaching and education knowing that you are responsible for the lives you serve. You have to go in as a servant. You have to be willing to sacrifice, reflect, and most importantly seek to understand and nurture every student and family you come in contact with. On your worst day, you have to continue to be your best self because of the gravity of your impact. Most of all, unlike other professions, your efforts are not always immediately evident. You have to work on faith knowing that one day all of your hard-work will pay off and someone is a better person because they sat in your classroom or school.
For more from our Q&A with Dr. Doris Lee, stay tuned for part 2, coming in April, where we dive into Village Academy's unique school culture!