Mary Cathryn Ricker’s office is about what you would expect from someone who has spent part of her life at the front of a classroom – piles of paper stacked high on every flat surface, various credentials hanging on the wall next to the abstract artwork of a grade-schooler, an eclectic array of tchotchkes collected over time. It’s clear that this is a woman who wears many hats.
But one particular item stands out. On the wall near her desk hangs a poster emblazoned with the words “STRIKE For Better Schools” from the 1946 AFT Local 28 teachers strike – the first strike by any teacher’s union in the country. That union would become what is now known as the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, and the professional home to Ricker ’91, who serves as its president.
“I inherited this leadership position from a very historic union,” said Ricker. “That’s a responsibility I take incredibly seriously.”
Ricker may have been destined for her profession from the day she was born. She is a third-generation educator. Although it wasn’t apparent to her early on, her career path seems as if it had always been headed in the direction of education. “I felt like whatever it was I was going to do, I wanted to make sure I was contributing toward more than just my own growth,” said Ricker. “Looking back at some of the things I did to explore a career in teaching, I realize that’s exactly what I was looking for.”
She began the St. Thomas portion of her journey in 1987, and wasted no time immersing herself in campus life. She honed collaborative skills as a member of student government and a number of social justice organizations. “Almost every day I’m reminded of some of the connections I was able to make as a college student. There were so many leadership development opportunities at St. Thomas.”
After earning her St. Thomas degree, Ricker spent 13 years in the classroom with stints teaching English to middle-schoolers in both Minnesota and the state of Washington, in addition to a year she spent teaching in South Korea. Although her teaching positions varied, a common thread was Ricker’s support of her local union. “I was always volunteering for different things with my local unions. So when I was invited to run for an appointment to the executive board here, it seemed very natural.”
As her level of participation and activism increased as a member of the board, she made the decision to run for president – an office to which she has been re-elected twice since her initial election in 2005.
As union leader, Ricker has a very specific role in the professional lives of teachers in St. Paul. But as a mom to a sixth- and a fourth-grader, her role as president takes a back seat. “Sometimes it’s tough not to ask my kids’ teachers how they feel about certain issues related to their work, but when I’m meeting with them I have to remember it is on behalf of my kids.”Although changing hats can be difficult, being a mom provides a completely different lens through which she views the profession. “Situations like parent-teacher conferences allow me a different vantage point that help me be a better advocate.”
With children of her own growing up through St. Paul public schools, she feels the weight of the responsibility her office carries. “There are 38,000 students who have a shot at a great K-12 experience. If we can get on the same page about what that K-12 experience should be for all St. Paul students, we can hopefully give by example the rest of Minnesota the biggest gift we could ever provide.”
Pinned to Ricker’s collar is a miniature replica of the original strike poster she keeps on the wall close to her desk. It’s important to her to recall her organization’s history as she looks ahead to its future. According to Ricker, “In many respects, the SPFT today is carrying on the best of our history from the 20th century – and that was making a union, a professional home and a place for innovation, the issues that have laid the groundwork for a promising profession in the 21st century.”
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