ST. PAUL - When Gov. Tim Walz appointed Mary Cathryn Ricker as the Minnesota commissioner of education, he knew her background and passion would make her the right person for the job.
“Having taught in classrooms from St. Cloud to St. Paul, Mary Cathryn understands the shared challenges and diverse needs of schools across our state,” Walz said of the Hibbing native. “This teacher-governor is proud to put a teacher-commissioner at the Department of Education. I look forward to working together to ensure every child in Minnesota receives a high quality education, no matter their race or ZIP code. I know Mary Cathryn is up for the challenge, because I trust teachers to get things done.”
Ricker said she views her job as a “daunting task,” but added that she is “deeply honored” by the appointment.
“I am exhilarated every day coming to work,” she said. “Part of that exhilaration comes from a deep love and respect for the role of public schools in our society and the role I want public schools to have in our society.”
The Minnesota Department of Education is tasked with overseeing the overall quality of public education in the state. In addition to teacher licensing, MDE uses collaboration and a variety of advisory boards toward that end.
In her first months on the job, Ricker, a former middle school English teacher, has traveled throughout the state, talking with people about education. She said her exhilaration is reflected in the people she meets.
“Minnesotans that I talk to want our students to succeed,” Ricker said, “and they want to know how to help. It is very encouraging.”
Ricker and Walz (also a former teacher) have made several trips to schools together. When they have shared the stage, Ricker said, “it feels like the best team-teaching situation where you each bring your own strengths and you plan your lessons around those strengths. You have the exact same expectations and goals in front of you.”
She said Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have a strong vision for the state. “That is infectious,” Ricker said. “It is something that I want to be a part of, and others want to be a part of.”
Ricker, previously the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her biggest goal as commissioner is to support the goals of the Department of Education which includes providing a high quality public school experience for every child in the state.
“We recognize that education plays a key role in so many of the aspirations that we have for the state of Minnesota,” Ricker said. “Minnesota has a history of innovating in public education, and I want to hold on to and help nurture that spirit of innovation.”
She acknowledged, however, that Minnesota does have problems in its educational system, especially in terms of treating all students equitably.
“We have discipline disparities that need to be addressed, so that they go away,” she said, “and an achievement gap that needs to be addressed, so it goes away. Those are the two that are on my mind daily, if not hourly.”
Ricker, a national board-certified teacher who serves on the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, noted that a key to good education is a strong teaching force. She said parents and students expect quality teaching and learning situations, When she was president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, one of her goals was to diversify teaching. It is still one of her concerns.
“Diversifying teaching is not an impossible problem to solve. It is going to take intention,” she said. “I want to be a part of that conversation. I want to be able to lead where I can. I want to work alongside people where I can.”
Although she is now in charge of education at the state level, Ricker said many of her earlier experiences as a teacher and talking with colleagues shaped her ideas and responses to current issues.
“On a statewide basis, while we can offer statistics on discipline disparity, for example, our teachers and principals and assistant principals are seeing those students, and they are working daily on trying to shape their support to better meet the needs of those students,” Ricker said. “If MDE can be a vehicle to help them share their most promising practices, then I want to make sure that MDE is doing everything possible to be that vehicle.”