Teach For America South Carolina 2016
Policy Analyst, Texas Indigent Defense Commission
In ninth grade, Olivia Lee read South Carolina writer Pat Conroy’s celebrated book, The Water Is Wide.
“Conroy wrote about a year he spent teaching in a two-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina,” she said. “It gave me a vivid sense of how different education could be in separate places.”
The difference resonated because Lee already sensed it. She grew up in Augusta, Georgia, attending public and private schools. “The differences in quality, teachers, and subject matter really shocked me, even as a 14-year-old,” she said.
After Lee’s family moved to Texas, she attended The University of Texas at Austin, majoring in psychology. A racial and gender attitudes course sensitized her even more deeply to inequities in class and education. When she heard a guest lecture from a Teach For America representative, it motivated her to put her ideals into action.
In 2016, Lee was placed by Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) to teach at Colleton County High School in Walterboro, South Carolina. It was, she said, “a little surreal.”
“Growing up, we drove through Walterboro on the way to the beach. I never imagined living or teaching there,” said Lee. “Now, it’s so important to me.”
As she settled into a new community and a new job, Lee shared a duplex with two other TFASC teachers, Madeline Brawley and Mary Katharine Thorne. Brawley knew her way around. She would later become the District Teacher of the Year in Colleton County. The pair helped Lee handle the revelations of a first-year teaching position.
“What stands out most? I developed an awareness of my racial identity,” said Lee. “I had never really confronted my privilege. TFASC did a great job of helping me develop an awareness of how students perceived me.”
Lee taught ninth-grade and 10th-grade English. Hearkening back to her love of Pat Conroy, she directed a creative writing class. She also taught public speaking, training students to voice their emotions and ideas.
“Knowing their ideas mattered, that they were respected, made a real difference to them,” said Lee.
Their work showed up in achievement. During Lee’s second year, more than 80 percent of her class passed the end-of-year exam – a precedent.
After her teaching commitment with TFASC, Lee attended law school at The University of Texas. Her sense of justice again led her this time into special education law. She worked as a clerk for the Public Education Committee during the 2021 legislative session in the Texas House of Representatives, where she filed a bill developed with stakeholders on better identifying students with dyslexia.
Her heart remains in Colleton County classrooms, and she stays in touch with her students. Lee recently got an email at 11 p.m. from a former class member asking where to put a comma in an English paper. She goes back and visits former students and her godson Jeremiah twice a year.
“I know the perception of schools in South Carolina,” said Lee. “I know it’s toward the bottom of all the lists for K-12.”
“But that doesn’t represent who my kids are. They are some of the smartest and most courageous people I have ever met. The water is wide between who they really are and who they are thought to be.”