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Class Reunions

Associate Professor Joel Lee, recipient of the National University of Singapore’s 2011 Outstanding Educator Award, tells Victor Katheyas ’13 about the strategies he uses to inspire and engage his students effectively. 

“Clichéd as it may sound, I studied law because I wanted to help people and change the world,” says Associate Professor Joel Lee with a smile. “Doesn’t everybody?”

Joel’s idealism endured even after graduation from law school. He made the unusual decision to go into academia, instead of legal practice. The reason: “to play a bigger role in changing how things were done through education.” He had developed what he refers to as “an affinity for teaching” after having an opportunity to be a tutor during his undergraduate years.

If his teaching accolades are anything to go by, he has indeed been changing things for the better. In April this year, Joel received the National University of Singapore’s Outstanding Educator Award, which is presented annually to recognize faculty members who have excelled in engaging and inspiring students (click here for more information on the award: ). This award is the latest in a string of many for Joel, who has previously received the University’s Annual Teaching Excellence Award (at both the faculty- and university-wide levels) multiple times.

Joel says, with great humility, that he feels fortunate to receive the award. “There are many good teachers who have yet to be recognised.”

He does, however, feel somewhat “vindicated” – to him, the award “signifies that the energy and time [I] focus on teaching [are] both correct and worthwhile”.

He explains: an effective teaching style has to do more than convey the content of what is being taught; it has to enable students to apply that content wisely in the appropriate context. Most crucially, it must also motivate students to want to learn more about the subject.

“You don’t have to be perfect. But live your life so that you contribute to the sum total of good in the world.”

To this end, Joel employs novel (and evidently extremely effective) methods to engage students in class.

Firstly, he tries to inject informality and humour into lessons, whenever possible. He is convinced that such a teaching style enhances the relationship between teacher and student, especially since he benefited from it during his law school years in New Zealand. “It makes the class fun and I think [students] learn better when they associate good feelings with the subject,” he explains.

Secondly, he prefers to let students “create their own learning” by adopting the Socratic method of instruction. While students may sometimes find this intimidating, he feels that there is tremendous value in challenging students to think critically about what they are studying.

Thirdly, he engages students by having them do role-playing exercises and simulations during class, then conducts reviews and discussions with the students about what they have done. He says this is a form of “active learning” because it gives students a “visceral experience” they can connect to their learning.

Fourthly, he believes in – and places an emphasis on – human relationships. Where possible, he tries to get to know each student as an individual. This improves the teacher-student relationship and creates an environment that is conducive to learning, he says.

But what if students still don’t get the material?

“I’ve never encountered this,” he replies. “If someone doesn’t initially get the material, I change what I am doing until they do get it. It’s part and parcel of what a teacher does.”

It helps that he is immensely passionate about the subjects he teaches, one of which is conflict resolution. “I chose these areas because I believe that for a client’s problem, going to court isn’t necessarily always the best option. Litigation carries with it many tangible and intangible costs. Oftentimes, it makes more sense to just resolve the matter through negotiation or mediation where, when done well, can lead to a mutually satisfactory solution,” he points out.

This potent combination of effort, passion and aptitude has borne much fruit. For example, some of his students have themselves chosen to teach conflict resolution. Others have told him, many years after graduating, that what they had learnt in class had been transformative in their personal lives.

“It is always nice to know that what we do makes a difference,” he muses.

At the end of the day, Joel offers one piece of advice for his students: “You don’t have to be perfect. But live your life so that you contribute to the sum total of good in the world.”