Drawing a Dream
Ratmony Yee’s childhood dream of becoming a teacher blossomed into a promise to help kids from all backgrounds
By Sarah Nightingale | Photos by Stan Lim
R atmony Yee’s long career in education can be traced back to a childhood drawing of a girl in a hammock. As a first grader at Central Elementary School in Carrollton, Texas, Yee struggled to understand as her teacher explained the assignment: to draw a picture inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, which would be entered into a schoolwide contest.
It was a quintessential child’s drawing — a square house with a triangle roof, the sun in the sky, and birds flying above. Between two trees, a girl relaxed in a hammock. At the recommendation of her teacher, Yee added a “dream” as a thought bubble. She still had no concept of the theme or its significance in American history, but she won the competition nonetheless.
“I spoke no English, but I was still able to express myself,” said Yee, who is an assistant superintendent of educational services for Victor Valley Union High School District (VVUHSD). “I knew at that moment that art was a language, and that I wanted to be a teacher.”
At the time of her artistic accolade in 1982, Yee was about 9 years old by birth — but only 6 according to the new birth date given by her parents when they moved to the U.S.; with little formal education, they worried she’d otherwise fall behind. Her connection to her new home through art was a powerful moment. She, too, had a dream.
Yee describes the first decade of her life as “traumatic.” Born in the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia, her family witnessed mass violence that saw around 1.5 million people killed under the regime of the Khmer Rouge, a communist political group that held power from 1975 to 1979. As a young child, she was surrounded by loss, pain, and hunger. After four years in labor camps, Yee’s father made the harrowing decision to risk escaping to a refugee camp in Thailand. The family made the arduous journey and, with help from the Red Cross and extended family, were able to move to the U.S.
After a short stint in Texas, home became Southern California. There, Yee’s family followed in the footsteps of many other Cambodian families and opened a donut shop, the sweet treats a reminder of noum kong, a traditional pastry made from rice flour. From the first flip of the donut store’s “We’re Open” sign until the present, Yee has worked seven days a week, with schooling and teaching bookended by weekend shifts at the store.
“I knew at that moment that art was a language, and that I wanted to be a teacher.”
Like many immigrants, Yee’s parents had high hopes for their children, drilling into them the importance of education, a strong work ethic, and gratitude as a roadmap to success. Yee’s older sister studied political science at UCR, going on to law school and becoming one of the first Cambodian attorneys in California when she established her law offices in Long Beach. One of her three brothers also graduated from UCR before continuing the family business with his own donut shop. Feeling pressure to follow in her sister’s footsteps, Yee enrolled in UCR’s political science program, spending three years learning about politics and international relations before mustering up the strength to tell her father her heart wasn’t in it.
“My father didn’t want me to be a teacher initially, but I finally found the courage to tell him that’s where I needed to land,” Yee said.
Yee changed majors to English, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1995 and earning a teaching credential from UCR’s School of Education in 1996. Yee said she found friendship and camaraderie in the Cambodian Club and appreciated the diversity on campus.
“I enjoyed the smallness of the campus as it was back then,” she said. “I felt like I was close enough to home to be comfortable but far enough away to be independent.”
UCR’s teaching credential, she said, offered a good mix of theory and practice. A semester teaching freshmen at A.B. Miller High School in Fontana helped give the then 20-year-old confidence to transition from student to teacher.
After UCR, Yee earned a master’s in education from California State University, Long Beach, where she taught as an adjunct professor for a year and a half. She later earned a doctorate in educational leadership and organizational management from the University of La Verne while working full time and parenting her young children.
During her 27 years as an educator, Yee has taught all ages, from kindergartners to college students. She has held assistant principal, principal, and director positions, including serving as a director of curriculum and assessment for Riverside Unified School District. She credits her success to her parents, noting that it was only through their sacrifice, love, and support she was able to achieve her dream. To this day, her work is grounded in her early life experiences and an unwavering commitment to help students from all backgrounds realize their potential through education.
Yee’s volunteer work on the board of directors for the California Association of Asian and Pacific Leaders in Education mirrors that commitment. The organization works to increase Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation in educational leadership and, in turn, champion AAPI students. Yee’s collective experience paved the way for her current position leading educational services at VVUHSD, a job she jokes entails “everything but hiring, firing, and paying people.”
“My role encompasses curriculum and assessment, instruction, student learning, and student social and emotional wellness,” said Yee, who works closely with students, teachers, and families. “Every student is different and, as educators, we have to provide them with what they need. That is what gives me a sense of purpose. It is our moral imperative to provide equitable outcomes for all students.”
In addition to shaping the educational journey of countless students in Inland Southern California, Yee plays a special role as a mother to her daughter, a senior at Citrus Valley High School in Redlands, and her son, a UCR political science student who intends to study law. Unlike Yee, he didn’t feel any pressure to become an attorney.
“When you raise your kids, you learn from your own experiences, and you do things your own way,” she said. “I wanted him to do whatever he is passionate about and this is it.”