Interview: Olivia Dhaliwal

Olivia Dhaliwal and I first met in our hometown of Erie, PA. We attended high school together before she moved onto Bard College at Simon’s Rock and completed her BS in Chemistry from Emory University – with the highest honors. Aside from being extremely intelligent, Olivia has always been a kind and thoughtful person.

Upon graduating from Emory, Olivia was accepted into the Teach for America program. She has completed her first year and is beginning her second as a high school math teacher in South Dakota in the Sicangu Nation (Rosebud Indian Reservation). Her time with Teach for America has been filled with incredible experiences, which we can all learn a lot from.

In her own words,

“My experience has had its ups and downs, but I would not change it for a thing. I am proud to be a part of Teach for America and I am proud to be a teacher.”

1. How’d you discover your passion for teaching? What made you pick Teach for America?
I believe that with great privilege comes great responsibility. My values are very important to me. I want to live a life that I am proud of. Teach for America gave me an opportunity to make a huge difference in kids’ lives and to also live out my values. I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to move across the country to a place I’d otherwise never see. I seized it and never looked back. It’s been the most adventurous, terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

Olivia with her students at Sacred Stone Camp supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.  

2. What is it about teaching that makes you so passionate?
I know the impact that a good teacher can have on a student. I know that third grade reading levels can accurately predict the chances that a child graduates high school or college and their chances that they’re incarcerated at some point in their lives. I believe that all students deserve a great education regardless of their zip code or income level. I know that it only takes one teacher to change the narrative, to make a student believe in themselves and want to come to school. I am reminded of the impact I have every day.

     My students and their families are that impact. They mean the world to me and it is highest on my list of priorities to earn their trust and respect every day.


3. What specific setbacks have you encountered so far?
My most prominent daily struggles are patience and never lowering my standards. I get exhausted by the end of the day; I want to just say “no” to every student who asks for help or just give up on getting them all motivated to do their work. Some days I can’t be the super-encouraging Miss O. And then I dig deep and do it anyway because I know my students need it. I know I can’t lower my standards because I know that when I do that, I am disrespecting my students in the worst possible way. This also kind of leads into a bigger struggle that I face directly every day in this work, which is the crisis that is America’s public education system today. I have no idea how it needs to be solved and the problems are so complex and layered. There’s the teacher shortage crisis, the school funding crisis, the standardized testing crisis, and on and on and on.

4. What has been your favorite success to date?
I am motivated by my students who have done the impossible: Jane* who went to Emory last summer for their Pre-College program and plans to attend Emory upon graduation; Sarah who got a full ride scholarship to Proctor Academy and started school there last week; John who persevered through Pre-Calculus and this year will take and finish AP Calculus, despite having an incarcerated parent and taking on the responsibility of parenting his younger brother.

After this year, though, my favorite success will hopefully be bragging that all ten of my AP Calculus students scored a three or higher on the AP Exam 🙂


5. What skills did you have you had to learn and master? Are these skills you could see using in the future, in and out of a classroom?
I had to learn how to lead strangers. It can be difficult to earn respect in the first few weeks from total strangers. You have to be very confident in yourself and you have to be comfortable in front of your students. My biggest rule in my classroom is “Be authentic.” I teach this on day one. I tell my students, “Being authentic means being real. Don’t give me disrespect when I didn’t earn it. When I do earn your disrespect, call me out (that’s right – call out your teacher). Because I am going to call you out when you disrespect my classroom, your education, or your classmates’ education. I deserve to be on the same level as you; we are in this together. There are some days, too, where I will have hard days and I will ask for your patience. By the same token, you have the right and responsibility to tell me when you are having a tough day so that I can give you space and meet you where you are.” I believe firmly that the leadership and social-emotional skills I am learning here will benefit me immensely in my future career as a healthcare provider.

6. What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a teacher or applying to TFA?
Go for it if it feels right, but don’t if you doubt your ability to stick it out. There is nothing worse than abandoning your class of students halfway through the year. Usually, the school won’t be able to find a replacement and those kids will be stuck with a long-term substitute who likely won’t even teach them. Do your research. Make sure you’re in this for the kids.

Make sure you’re ready for a lot of sacrifices and discomfort, and also celebration and real joy.

7. And, of course we have to ask. Are you UpByFive every day?
Monday, Wednesday, Friday – up by 5:40am!


*Please note, all student names in this article have been changed for confidentiality

 Interview as told to and edited by Maggie Tarasovitch.
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