Albert Shanker Institute
Mary Cathryn Ricker is a National Board Certified middle school English/language arts teacher who has served as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, as Executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, and as president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, Local 28. Prior to her leadership outside of the classroom, Ricker was a classroom teacher for 13 years in Minnesota, Washington State, and South Korea.
As Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, Mary Cathryn Ricker lead a school finance working group examining Minnesota’s school finance systems and recommending reforms. She advocated for a more student and family facing department of education, resulting in increased, direct outreach including translated materials and translation services. Additionally, Ricker worked alongside advocates in the effort for legislation for Indigenous Education for All, ethnic studies, credit attainment for students experiencing housing instability or homelessness, expanding social/emotional learning, strengthening teacher diversity efforts, including cultural competency in teacher and principal evaluations and non-exclusionary discipline policies—winning a prohibition on public preschool suspensions and dismissals in a special legislative session. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ricker lead an effort to act on the science, create safe and healthy learning conditions, and prioritize in-person learning by establishing localized learning models, listening and responding to the community—including building MDE’s most ambitious and diverse family-facing communication work—providing statewide professional development in meeting the needs of students with special needs, students experiencing housing instability, students learning English as a new language, and Black, Indigenous, and students of color, and investing in necessary health and safety items like technology, protective equipment, and COVID testing.
When Mary Cathryn was executive vice-president of the AFT, under the leadership of AFT President Randi Weingarten, she created and lead the AFT Professionalism Task Force and organized the AFT Gun Violence Prevention Advisory Committee. Ricker also lead the AFT Innovation Fund, focusing on expanding and supporting career and technical education and full-service community schools. Additionally, she coordinated local, state and national unions support for refugee children at the border, lead involvement in ethnic studies movement, advocated and organized for comprehensive immigration reform and for strengthening education for English language learners. She organized a member/staff working group for Native American advocacy and represented AFT in professional membership work, including as Program and Policy Council division liaison.
As president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, Ricker pioneered the concept of bargaining for the common good, an approach to negotiating where union members share the power they have at the negotiating table with students, families, and community members to negotiate around a set of demands that benefit members, students, and the broader community. She lead the effort to win contract language such as citizenship leave and a school nurse for every child, and she championed innovative, teacher-built solutions that improve teaching and learning as well as strengthen public education. These include the union's alternative teacher recruitment and licensure program, CareerTeacher; a full-spectrum peer assistance and review program; site-based school redesign and governance; a parent-teacher home visit project; comprehensive professional development; paraprofessional pathways to teaching, dedicated paraprofessional professional development; and meaningful community engagement as the union's work.
Ricker also serves on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards board of directors. Her teaching and leadership 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." She has spoken and written extensively about teaching and learning, professionalism, and human rights issues and her work has appeared in local and national publications. She has traveled to speak, teach, or study public education, the labor movement, and democracy, including in Europe, North and South America, and Western Asia/the Arabian peninsula.
A native of Hibbing, Minnesota, she earned her undergraduate degree in English with a mathematics minor at the University of Saint Thomas, and completed graduate work in Teacher Leadership at the University of Minnesota.