About Donald Lee
The eclectic Donald Lee is a musician, teacher, band director, economist, power engineer, marketer, businessman, athlete, public speaker, and author. He holds degrees in economics and education. Donald is an Albertan, growing and raising his family in Fort Saskatchewan. He has always been active in his community in many ways: founder of the Fort Saskatchewan Community Band, of a children’s choir, a performer in many local bands, orchestras and choirs, as well as coaching minor sports.
Donald spent two decades in the fertilizer industry in many roles: labourer, chemical process operator, marketer, and new product developer with the research group.
He made a mid-life career change and returned to his first love – music—then spent two decades as a teacher and band director in various schools in Alberta, Kuwait, and Pakistan. Primarily a band director, Donald has also taught choir, musical theatre, jazz band, English, math, drama, social studies, even art and carpentry.
He has often been active in the political process and has run for provincial party nominations twice. Donald has also been an active member of Toastmasters, advancing to the World Championship of Public Speaking in 1995.
Donald remains an avid sportsman and athlete – skiing, swimming, running, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and hunting in the great Alberta outdoors. In his 50’s he took up triathlon, competing in local and national events including the 2013 ITU World Finals as part of the Canadian Team.
As a band director and a religion teacher, Donald melds the two genres to bring the “life of the spirit” truly to life in stories. Inspired by his teaching experience, Donald turned classroom episodes into modern-day parables in his book, The Band Director’s Lessons About Life.
Added to his own convoluted, life-long spiritual quest, Donald draws on his many years of teaching religion classes—everything from A to Z, the Apostle’s Creed to Zen Buddhism. Following humbly in the footsteps of Jesus, Donald picks up the pedagogy of the parable to instruct through story. His spiritual work aims to bring spirit into materiality, to help people be in the world but not of the world, to guide people along their individual spiritual journey back to God. And in the process, to live our physical life to the fullest.
You can check out my Amazon author page here
If you’d like to know more about me, here’s a segment from the beginning of my first book of parables. It picks up my story from my career change into teaching to the point when I started writing.
How did I come to this? Of course, there’s a story.
Teaching is my second career. I became a schoolteacher in my early forties, though I had planned to do it twenty years earlier. Like they say, if you want to make God laugh—make plans. But plan we must, which is part of why it’s hard for me to conceive of a bitter and vengeful God. He simply can’t stop laughing at us.
Music was my first love, and I was determined to be a musician. But life took me on a detour, and I spent nearly twenty years in the fertilizer business. In 1999, we had just bought a new house and taken on a bigger mortgage. I had a good, secure job. The kids were all teenagers and wanted more room. I wanted a garage. My wife wanted a bigger kitchen. The dog wanted a bigger yard. It was a natural. The house was perfect. It was a great plan. God laughed.
In the midst of moving in, I got laid off.
The company was going through a big organizational review and was laying off hundreds of people. At this point in my life, my kids were in high school, and my wife and I were beginning to contemplate an “empty nest.” I would miss our kids. Despite the hassles that came with raising teenagers, I loved them dearly. But as a school band director, I could still have both music and kids in my life. Music had been lacking in my life for many years, and kids would be lacking soon enough, so I decided to return to my first love—music.
Accordingly, in the fall of 1999, I returned to university to complete a second degree in education. Two years later I started my first teaching job at St. Cecilia Junior High School in Edmonton. It was the start of a fun, rewarding, and challenging career as a band director. Teaching is the most demanding job I have ever had—and I’ve had a few. But I managed my band-directing career terribly.
As a band director, you want to stay in one place for quite a long time—long enough to develop a program and run it. Most subjects in school are courses. Band is a program. You might teach seventh-grade math or English and not teach those students ever again during your career. But in band, you teach the same students year after year. You watch them grow. You help them develop as musicians and as people. You develop a relationship with them throughout their formative years. It’s a special opportunity, a joy, and sometimes a frustration.
I did it all wrong. I taught at St. Cecilia Junior High School for three years, then took a position at a senior high school in our district. The band director was taking a year’s leave to complete a master’s degree, so the school needed a band director for just one year.
That winter, as our youngest son was completing high school, I looked into teaching overseas. My wife was reluctant to leave Canada but eventually agreed to the adventure. “But as soon as we have grandchildren, I’m coming home,” she said. That was our deal. I accepted a job at the American International School of Kuwait. It seemed like a good plan. God laughed.
While Kuwait was an enjoyable experience overall, I did not find the “great international students with professional parents” I had been expecting. Most came from rich Kuwaiti families and had little interest in band. I needed to go farther east. Asian students—they were the good students. They came from the oldest culture in the world, a culture that highly values education and art. Go east, young man! And, so, as my two-year contract ended, I looked to Asia for my next international teaching opportunity.
I ended up with a choice of several Asian international schools: in Lahore, Pakistan; Chennai, India; or Pattaya, Thailand. None of these was really what I was looking for, but the Lahore American School seemed to have the fewest problems and the most opportunities of the lot. That’s where we decided to go. This was 2007, and the situation seemed to be slowly improving after the 9/11 disaster had sent most expats out of the region. It seemed like a good plan. God laughed again.
Things are rarely as they seem. Almost as soon as the ink on my contract was dry, the situation in Pakistan went downhill. In the summer of 2007, the Red Mosque affair blew up in Islamabad. Islamist militants holed up inside the mosque. The army surrounded them and eventually stormed the mosque, killing a bunch of the militants. It set the country on edge. Opinions were divided, passions aroused. The whole country gradually slipped into political instability. By the time we left Pakistan, the army was engaged in a full-scale war to dislodge the Pakistani Taliban that had taken control of the Swat Valley.
Once that two-year contract ended, I looked around the world for a better job but didn’t connect with any. I had become picky. I wouldn’t work for peanuts, and I wouldn’t go where we didn’t want to live. I ended up without a job, and we had to return home to Canada. In my eight years of teaching band, I had been at four different schools, had not built a program anywhere, had no tenure, and no job. Not at all what a band director wants.
We returned to Canada in July 2009. The annual recruiting cycle was over everywhere. My wife and I rented a little house in central Edmonton with the idea that I would try to find enough work as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. Living centrally, I could easily go in any direction each morning, depending on where I found a job. I had been practicing and doing some performing in recent years. I intended to also do some private teaching and get some gigs around town. That was my plan. God laughed. He had a better plan.
I submitted my name as a substitute teacher with both the public and Catholic school boards. The day before school started, I got a call from Edmonton Catholic Schools. “Go over to St. Alphonsus School.” What luck, if you call it luck. Our little rented house was in the parish of St. Alphonsus, where we had started attending church. I walked over to the school and met the principal. Due to some miscommunication, they were without a band director, and I ended up teaching there the whole year. God’s plan seemed to work out a lot better than mine.
As the school year neared its end, I looked into what was happening with the various band directors and programs in the district—who was going on maternity leave, who was coming back from it, who was retiring, who was moving. It was pretty clear that, however the shuffling of people and positions worked out, there had to be a job for me in the district. There was one more program than there were band directors. Having worked for the district a total of five years (including the four years before I went overseas), surely I would get whatever position was left after everyone else moved around. Most likely it would be right here at St. Alphonsus. That was my plan. God laughed some more.
When the dust settled at the end of June, there was no job for me anywhere in the district. Once again, the recruiting cycle was over and I was without a job. Back to the previous year’s plan.
In August, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary at a small restaurant in Edmonton. While we were eating, two couples from Fort Saskatchewan came in. Amid the greetings and the “I haven’t seen you in years,” was the inevitable, “What are you doing now?” question. It’s awkward to say, “I’m fifty years old, unemployed, with no prospects,” but that was the truth. They said that Our Lady of the Angels School in Fort Saskatchewan needed a band director.
How could that be? I had been all over the job ads and seen nothing posted. Our kids had gone to that school. We knew the principal. It was my hometown, where I had grown up, where we’d raised our kids. What on earth was God doing?
I ended up with that job and spent the next three years teaching with Elk Island Catholic Schools, where I had a diverse assortment of part-time roles. Now in my early fifties and without any kids to support, I thought it was a great time to work not quite so hard. We moved back into our old house in Fort Saskatchewan, which we had rented out during our absence. I had some time to work on practicing and private teaching, and I tried to play some gigs. This was going to work out perfectly. That was my plan. Yeah, God laughed.
By the end of my stint with Elk Island Catholic Schools, it had become obvious that this plan wasn’t working. I was getting almost no gigs and had only a few private students who didn’t practice much and weren’t very regular with their lessons. Retirement seemed as if it were being constantly pushed further and further into the future. I was on the “freedom seventy-five” plan. I still needed a full-time income and would for quite a while longer.
Once again, I was back in the job market, scouring band-director job postings all over the province. I had worked twelve years as a band director in seven different band programs—a checkered background, to say the least. That spring I got just one job offer: Glenmary Catholic School in Peace River. I needed a full-time job. My wife agreed to go. So off we moved to Peace River, about five hundred kilometers (three hundred miles) north of Edmonton. It was the summer of 2013, and I was fifty-five years old. I figured if I worked full-time until I was sixty-five, I should have enough time to actually build a good band program, stay in one place for ten years, and be able to retire. That was my plan. Are you laughing yet?
My wife and I really like Peace River. It’s a beautiful location tucked in a steep river valley. A big hill—Misery Mountain, as they call it—right in the middle of town provides a great little ski hill and wonderful hiking opportunities literally right outside our door. We can walk out the front door and right up the hill. The mule deer come through almost every day, eating our grass, flowers, veggies, and fertilizing our lawn for free. Up on the hill, we regularly see deer, grouse, rabbits, squirrels, songbirds, and the occasional fox, coyote, moose, or black bear. In the summer we eat raspberries and saskatoon berries right off the bushes. From the top, we see breath-taking panoramic views of the town and valley.
The people here are true rural Alberta gems—friendly, fun-loving, and always willing to lend a hand. And it’s here that I have found the good students I went all over the world looking for. Of course, they’re not all good students. That’s part of the revelation of the spiritual journey I have taken. I sought better students. There are good and bad students everywhere. I needed to become a better teacher. It’s never about the world around us changing. It’s about us changing.
One revelation on our spiritual journey is that what you seek is already right here with you—before you even start your journey. A second is that the world does not change by your journey. You change—and thus you see the world differently. Then you are able to see that what you seek is right before you. It always was. You always had it. Because what you seek is within you, not without you. So the spiritual journey is always a journey inward. The outward journey is just to show you yourself as reflected in the faces and places you visit.
As you journey through the following pages, I pray that the journey will be vicariously meaningful to you.