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Teacher Profile: Olivia Harris, 2nd Grade

After many years as a camp counselor, babysitter, and nanny, 2nd grade teacher Olivia Harris (she/her/hers) earned her New York State teacher certification in grades 1-6 — as well as her Masters in Childhood Education — from Hunter College in 2021. In her free time, you'll find Olivia seeing live music, crafting, and hanging out outside.

Olivia Harris was in graduate school at Hunter College when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She was in her first year of student teaching in New York City – on her way toward a certification in grades 1-6 and a Masters in Childhood Education – when everything went virtual.

“It was a very interesting time to be training as an educator,” she laughs. “I was all of a sudden learning alongside my mentor teachers.” Olivia found it empowering to be able to offer her technological expertise, and she embraced the challenge of generating “creative ideas for connecting with the kids online.”

During what ended up being two years of virtual student teaching, Olivia (a Westchester native) began spending more time in the Hudson Valley, and ultimately made the move. She learned about High Meadow through a babysitting gig.

“The kids came home with mint tea from the garden,” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘what kind of magical school is this?’ It was dark times and a lot of kids were not having great school experience and I was hearing really great things from these kids.”

As she came to know the school better, High Meadow reminded her of the camp where she’d worked for five summers for both the time spent outdoors and “that community feel.” Olivia’s first position was teaching math on our 5th/6th team, which was a stretch for her, age-wise. She’s now in her second year in 2nd grade, more of a fit with her background.

This year's 2nd grade with their homemade scarecrow.

“I see relationship-building as the foundation of teaching,” Olivia says. “It’s really hard for learning to happen if that connection isn’t there.” This is one reason she focuses on identity work, aiming to ensure all students feel seen and appreciated, and creating a classroom environment that feels safe for everyone.

“I believe in trying to flip the power structures in my classroom,” she continues, letting students lead a circle or an activity, or choose between options at work time. She creates space for inquiry that’s based on student interest, moving away from the traditional idea that a teacher has knowledge, while students lack knowledge.

“I do genuinely love to learn and I see myself as a learner. I’m constantly learning alongside my students,” Olivia says, taking risks and integrating new ideas. “[Teaching] is a very challenging profession in that way, being asked to self-reflect and adapt on a daily basis. It’s really cool, too, because it’s constantly changing.”

Last year, Olivia’s class took an interest in American Sign Language (ASL). The subject came up through a book they were reading – not even a book she had chosen – called Emma Everyday. In the book, Emma wears cochlear implants because she is hard of hearing. 

Last year's 2nd grade sharing their ASL study at all-school gathering.

“It put me in an interesting position,” Olivia says. “I’m not an expert in ASL,” but with support from a mentor teacher, “I created time for us to lean into the questions we had.” They found information in various forms, including books and videos, and also a visit from a High Meadow parent who is hard of hearing. 

“It snowballed in a really great way,” Olivia says, extending beyond their academic classes to a dance incorporating signs and a visual arts project casting their hands in plaster to spell out “doggie love” (a phrase important to the class).

“It was so cool to see the ways this one idea sort of spread into their learning. I was feeling really grateful to be at a school like this that allows me to honor my students’ interests in that way. It was even more meaningful to me because there happened to be so many layers – a different language, disability, marginalization through history, the beauty of deaf culture, and there were so many cool things in pop culture, like Rihanna having an interpreter at the Super Bowl.”

Cast plaster hands spelling out "doggie love," a phrase important to last year's 2nd grade.

“I really see the classroom as this collaborative space,” Olivia says, and just as she honors her students’ identities, she tries to bring her whole self into my teaching. “If you want a certain behavior,” she says, “the best way is to model the behavior yourself.” 


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