Profiles, Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness: Joel Ien

Profiles is a series of features in collaboration with Lawrence Kerr Photography 
and The original was published in full on
Joel Ien is a life-long educator who has worked as a teacher, principal and professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. If the surname “Ien” sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen Joel’s daughter, Marci, on TV. Marci is a co-host on CTV’s Canada AM and occasionally an anchor for CTV National News.

She says part of what makes her father such a great dad and great educator is his big heart. “He goes above and beyond for people, and they remember him for that,” she says. Marci remembers her dad bringing lunches and bus fares for his students who couldn’t afford it. But she says Joel was a tough teacher who demanded a lot from his students, but had a heart of gold.

Joel’s teaching philosophy revolves around the belief that one must engage a student as a whole person and be invested in their success and well-being. Joel was truly dedicated to his students and says, “My time is the kid’s time. Teaching cannot be a 9-3 job. You have to be willing to give and give and give until you can’t give anymore.”

What was your experience at Harvard like?
Fabulous. The experience was fabulous. That really changed the way I thought about evaluation. At U of T they mark you with a numerical or letter grade, at Harvard they mark you pass or fail. That was a very interesting concept. Pass or fail. Satisfactory or unsatisfactory. And we all studied together in groups, no one competed like at U of T, where we would get books and hide them. That competitive behavior was absent at Harvard because everybody studied together and everybody shared. And that affected how I taught later and how I evaluated kids. And I taught all the teachers at OISE the same thing, I said: “You are all going to be successful, or at least you all assume you’re going to be successful. Now let’s work together as a group and as a community and you’ll all be very successful.”

Right from the beginning I kept saying that, and I didn’t evaluate the normal way. I’ll give you an example: I asked students a question every week and each question was an interview question that they would write an answer to. I would just give check marks. I did that for three weeks; no marks. On the fourth week I put marks. And then there was a buzz in the class, “that’s not what we’re used to.” Then I asked teachers, “what did we learn?” When we as teachers evaluate our students with a red mark, the anxiety level of the class rises. And we debriefed and discussed what putting a mark down can do, and how its effect on students can be negative rather than positive. Some teachers mark in red, and they throw it in front of the class and say, “You got a zero. A big fat zero.” That destroys a student.

I know that part of your teaching method involves telling a story to your students on the first day of class, do you mind sharing that story?
I put on the board a name and two numbers, say 1905 dash 1942. And I ask the kids “where do you usually see this?” and they say “on a tombstone.” Then I ask “what do you think that dash means?” The dash is the lifetime. All the years that come between the two dates are compressed in a dash. And that has to count, it has to mean something. You have to leave some mark in life. Then the kids analyze the dash in terms of what it can mean: what profession they follow, their dreams.

But for Marci and her siblings, Joel the teacher, was Joel the dad. And she recalls him being dedicated to his kids and their passions. “I did a show called Circle Square, I grew up on the show, I did it from when I was 10 until I was 16. We taped it every Saturday and the call time was 5:30 in the morning. Every Saturday morning for 6 years my dad drove me to the studio, in downtown Toronto and we lived in Scarborough. And there he was a teacher, working five days a week and he got up even earlier on the weekend to take me down there, and he never complained. He brought me to every taping for six years and it was crazy but it was fun. Going on the highway, sometimes we’d have hot chocolate and just the long drives and the conversations on early Saturday mornings were great. My dad has a really big heart and I think that’s what made him such a great educator because he cared. He certainly taught me that, and it’s carried on with me. I care for people, especially young people. And his generosity has stayed with me. He also gave us a love of art. And most definitely a love of sports. We’ve been going to Raptors games for 13 years and it’s a date I do not break,” says Marci.

Some teachers say there’s a difference between wisdom and knowledge, what do you think those differences are?
With knowledge you can pick up a book and read it, then you have knowledge of that book. I think wisdom goes deeper than knowledge. Anyone can get knowledge. When you become wise you are able to evaluate, appraise, assess and learn from your knowledge. When you become wise you seek knowledge.