In her first weeks leading the Minnesota Department of Education as commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker has been spending some time in her past.

There was a visit to her Iron Range alma mater: Hibbing High School, where a long-ago stint as “teacher for the day” cemented her decision to follow her father and grandfather into teaching. This week, she made a stop at Hopkins West Junior High, where she sat in a circle with students, posing questions and evaluating their responses — much as she’d done in the middle schools where she spent most of her teaching career.

At both stops, Ricker asked teachers and students for their big ideas on burning education issues. In a state with well-documented achievement gaps, how can we ensure that all students receive a high-quality education? What makes a school feel welcoming and safe?

As she steps into her new role, Ricker knows the stakes are high.

She oversees Minnesota’s nearly 330 public school districts, 164 charter schools and the thousands of teachers and administrators who shape students’ lives. Even in small groups, she’s peppered with questions about testing, teacher shortages and reading instruction.

But Ricker, 50, a longtime teacher-turned-union leader who prides herself on maintaining a “solution-driven ambition,” is upbeat about the challenges.

“There are very few problems impossible to solve,” she said. “Some take longer, some take creativity but staying dedicated to solving the problem is both a leadership skill and an invitation to work alongside people to have a really community-based approach to solving problems.”

Her top priorities

For the last decade and a half, Ricker has sought to solve problems through leadership roles in two powerful teachers unions: first as president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and most recently, as executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Before that, she was in the classroom, honing the teaching skills that are still visible in her new role. (In front of either students or adults, Ricker is careful to make eye contact with everyone in the room, offer thanks and praise after someone shares a thought and take note when someone hasn’t yet raised a hand to participate.)

As commissioner, Ricker said her top two priorities are erasing the state’s persistent achievement gap and tackling disparities in how different groups of students are disciplined.

She’s supportive of schools using restorative practices — focusing on conflict management and problem-solving rather than more hard-line punishments, like suspension — and of full-service community schools, which provide health and social services for students and families.

Her third priority: professionalism in teaching, a category she said includes issues of pay, training, retention and licensing.

Ricker’s advocacy on behalf of teachers has drawn questions about how open the former union leader will be to considering a wide range of ideas for improving the state’s schools.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the chairwoman of the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee, said Ricker’s appointment as commissioner prompted “a lot of discussion” about her ability to make the transition away from a union point of view. She appreciates Ricker’s perspectives as a former classroom teacher but said she’s not yet sure what to expect from her as leader of the state’s schools.

“[One of] the union’s priorities is more union members, and their other priorities might be in conflict with innovation and what’s best for students,” she said.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz, himself a former teachers union member, shrugged off the idea that an ex-union leader could be a controversial pick. He said Minnesotans will be well served by someone who draws her motivation primarily from the time she spent in the classroom.

“They may try and demonize all they want, but the best union advocates for teachers are the ones who care so deeply about how we deliver,” he said.

From teacher to union leader

Ricker’s first teaching job was in St. Cloud, though she spent the bulk of her career in St. Paul. There, teaching in the city’s public schools, she began to notice how differences between school buildings and districts could have a dramatic impact on both teachers and students. In St. Cloud, for example, her class periods were 55 minutes long, every day of the week. In St. Paul, they were 67 minutes long but held every other day.

“I said: ‘My students in St. Paul are getting me for a fraction of the time my students in St. Cloud got me, in the same school year,’ ” she said. “I don’t have the time to meet their needs in the way I was having the time to meet the needs of my kids in St. Cloud. And that was just one example.”

Ricker was also frustrated by what she saw as a “bad teacher narrative” spreading outside of school buildings. She said she’d primarily encountered teachers who worked hard but were stifled by limited resources. In 2005, she took action, running for — and winning — the job of president of the St. Paul teachers union.

Ricker led the more than 3,600-member union for nearly a decade, through budget cuts, contract negotiations and leadership changes at the top of the district. In 2014, she led the push for an expansive contract that included dozens of new hires and limited class sizes. They came close to voting on a strike but ultimately reached a deal that was largely seen as a victory for Ricker and her team of organizers.

Nick Faber, the current president of the St. Paul teachers union, said Ricker found success by building support among parents and community members.

“We were fighting for more librarians, and our community just did not know that we had 39,000 students and 13 full-time librarians,” he said. “Our community did not know that there was not a full-time nurse in every school.”

Ricker’s organizing caught the attention of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union that elected her as executive vice president in 2014. She served in that role until this January, when Walz made her the state’s top education official.

The move was met with wide approval by teachers unions, who were already excited about Walz, a former teacher, moving into the governor’s office.

St. Paul teacher Megan Olivia Hall, said Ricker was effective as both a union organizer and as a mentor. Hall said it was Ricker who inspired her to pursue a National Board Certification, a rigorous training process that goes beyond what’s required for a teaching license.

“It’s really heartening for me to expect a future in which the profession of teaching is held to a high standard,” Hall said.