Meet Mary Cathryn Ricker

Gov. Tim Walz, a former educator himself, named long-time teacher and education advocate Mary Cathryn Ricker as his commissioner of education last December. Ricker sat down with the Minnesota Educator in January to share her thoughts as she started this new role.

What about this position intrigued you to apply for it?
For my whole career, I have been working on issues of teaching and learning and they’ve been in different pockets. The first thing I did was work on my own delivery of teaching and learning. I got involved with my school and then my district’s professional development committees. Then I got in these advocacy positions, whether it was on the Professional Advocacy committee at Education Minnesota or writing letters to the then-commissioner of education. 

When this opportunity came up, I had been working in these pockets but being commissioner of education meant that I got to work on it in a comprehensive scale. It was no longer the pocket for just my English department or just for new teachers in St. Paul Schools. It has become an opportunity to talk about the kind of teaching and learning conditions that students across the state of Minnesota deserve. That was a really exciting prospect for me to be able to sit alongside Minnesotans in every corner of the state and shape the teaching and learning conditions that our students deserve.

How are you going to set priorities for the Department of Education?
The first thing is to survey the landscape. I come in with areas of expertise that I am very passionate about. I know that I am working alongside a staff at the Minnesota Department of Education that has also built up areas of expertise that we should tap into, whether that’s at the office in Roseville and in the Regional Centers of Excellence.

I also know that students and families and community members across the state of Minnesota also have talents we can be tapping into and they also have ideas to shape public education for the future.

One of the hallmarks of my career has been listening first, learning from what I hear and then shaping the work ahead based on what I’ve learned. That is going to be an important part of this role.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in education right now?
Our biggest challenges have do with disparities and invisibility. Disparities in achievement, disparities in discipline and disparities of experiences. We have different students who have access to a different wealth of experiences depending on the school they are going to or the district they are in. 

Then we have Minnesotans who feel like they are invisible in our system and that needs to stop. We need to look at every individual in our system, see what they need and then go about breaking down the barriers to what they need and what they deserve.

What ideas do you have to work on making sure every child in Minnesota has access to the same quality of education?
Students bring assets with them that maybe don’t get measured on a test, but that help our communities flourish. Any work that we can do to make sure that we’re lifting up the incredible assets that our students are bringing when they are bringing their whole selves to school is part of making a more equitable climate in our schools and a more equitable climate in our communities.

How do you see the department supporting educators in this state? Do you envision educators also supporting the department, in terms of being a collaborative relationship?
I love that idea of a collaborative relationship, where educators are promoting what is best about their profession and educators are shaping our profession and those teaching and learning conditions, and the Minnesota Department of Education is taking a lead in advancing professionalism.

Attention to professionalism will do a number of things. It’s going to bring attention to what goes into those high-quality teaching and learning conditions. It’s also going to bring attention to the expectations we have when we earn a teaching license in the state of Minnesota. 

MDE can lead the way on some of this work but MDE should also not be standing in the way of educators who want to do this work as well. And really, we should be looking for those opportunities.

One of the opportunities we have to grow in this state is to recognize the sophisticated responsibilities our education support professionals hold—when they are working alongside teachers, when they are driving students to and from school, when they are serving lunch to our students. Those are roles that come with a great deal of responsibility in meeting the needs of our students.

We can play a bigger role at MDE in recognizing that and amplifying that and we can make sure that we have a partnership that goes both ways with them as well.

What skills from both your teaching and advocacy background do you bring into this position?
When I accepted my first teaching job and earned my license, I was accepting great deal of responsibility with that. Some of that was personal responsibility and some of that was institutional responsibility. I recognize now that this position is similar. I am accepting a great deal of responsibility on behalf of the people of Minnesota, their students and their families, as well as the governor and lieutenant governor who have trusted me with this position. I take that very seriously. 

What do you love most about education?
I looked for a career that took what I loved to learn, such as reading and writing, and where I could apply that every day. I realized that was teaching. I could be in a classroom and be really excited about what I was sharing. There was an awe in realizing that this career could make such an impact on students, and that awe has never really left me.

What do you want to tell the educators across Minnesota as you begin your work?
Recognize the power and responsibility that you have when you accept a job meeting the needs of students and their families. Do everything to do your best work. Offer whatever you can to support your colleagues so they know they can count on you to do their best work as well. While sometimes, these can feel like isolating positions, we can’t forget that we’re in this together. 

Our students are counting on us to be in this together to meet their needs.

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Bio

A native of Hibbing, Mary Cathryn Ricker is a National Board Certified middle school English teacher with over a decade of classroom experience. 

She has taught in classrooms from St. Cloud to Washington to South Korea to Yemen. She spent a large part of her career teaching middle school English in St. Paul Public Schools. She previously served as executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and as the president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 28. 

Her teaching and leadership skills have been recognized with a number of other honors, including receiving the Education Minnesota Peterson-Schaubach Outstanding Leadership Award, qualifying as a semifinalist for the NEA Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, and serving as a featured contributor in the Annenberg Foundation’s national professional development series, “Write in the Middle.” 

Ricker is a third-generation teacher. Her grandfather and father were both teachers on the Iron Range. 
She earned her undergraduate degree in English with a mathematics minor at the University of Saint Thomas, and completed her graduate work in Teacher Leadership at the University of Minnesota. Ricker’s husband teaches English language learners in the St. Paul Public Schools, and they have two children, one in St. Paul Public Schools and one in college.