I recently sat down with Oregon's 2019 Teacher of the Year, Keri Pilgrim Ricker, who teaches in the Health Occupations CTE program at Churchill High School in Eugene. In this two-part blog series, Keri tells us about a professor that shifted her perspective on teaching, talks about how to help students feel safe the classroom so that they can show up as their whole selves, ready to learn, and shares why it’s so important to intentionally create space to recharge in a busy teaching schedule. I hope you enjoy getting to know Keri as much as I did!
Hi Keri, I’ve heard you mention gaining an appreciation for the field of education as a graduate teaching assistant at Purdue University. Tell us about that experience and some of the first lessons you learned.
What I found, was that I loved telling the stories of science and being able to describe difficult concepts in more practical ways. I really enjoyed getting to know my students and what they were interested in. I would try to reframe the content according to their own individual contexts. If they were athletes, I would try to use a sports analogy. If they were into baking or cooking, I’d try to use those sorts of analogies to explain more difficult concepts.
Did those strategies come naturally to you, or did you have a mentor?
I have always been a storyteller and someone who relies heavily on metaphor and analogy. So that strategy has always been a natural go-to for me, but what I think I got the most from my professors in college, specifically Dennis Minchella at Purdue, was the importance of deeply caring for students and valuing relationships.
This was in a science research program, and usually when you go to the top-tier research schools, research is a hundred percent of the focus. But for Dennis, he was as dedicated to undergraduate instruction as he was to his research, and his research team. He would be lecturing to 500 students, and then he would spend hours in his little cubicle looking at photo flashcards he created for each student. The cards helped him learn faces and names, and he knew them all for the entire duration of their tenure at Purdue.
I thought it was really amazing that a high-level research professor cared so much about the student experience. That always stuck with me: the fact that you have to really work on cultivating a welcoming environment, for students to feel safe to succeed in your classroom and to come to you for support.
Talk about the achievement gap in gender when it comes to the sciences. As a teacher in the Health Occupations CTE track, do you do anything specifically to empower girls and women in your classes?
If you look at my field and topic, the areas of nursing and therapeutic services are highly female-dominant. It’s the same for veterinary medicine. But then, if you look at surgery and professional terminal degrees, we start to see the same sort of inequitable distributions of degrees based on gender.
I spend a little bit more time introducing alternative health care occupations in my classrooms. What I find, is that a lot of students enter these programs thinking they’re going to be a nurse or a doctor or a dentist or a vet. Those are the careers that they know off the top of their heads. So, making students aware of the biotechnical tracks, the lab diagnostic tracks, the administrative tracks… that is where I have to craft strategies that engage the students that are typically underrepresented in those fields.
How about promoting equity along lines other than gender?
Churchill is one of the more diverse campuses in Eugene 4J, in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and gender identity, but this diversity has not historically been reflected in our program. As a person of color, I have really worked to diversify all of my classes, and to rebrand our program as a cohort or collective that makes health occupations a reality for all student groups. I’ve tried to diversify and individualize my instruction so that all students feel and are successful.
I make my program extremely hands-on and use a lot of collaborative strategies, not only because those are real-life strategies utilized in industry, but because I like to empower student voice and utilize student talk to help aid in processing. I also do a lot of model-building and inquiry-level activity in my classes. When you think about Anatomy & Physiology, or Medical Terminology, typically you might think of the old-school model, maybe the drill and kill model, where we’re memorizing a lot of terms. And that is accessible to some students, but not to all students. What I’ve found is that I needed to really work on eliminating the barrier of excessive reliance on technical vocabulary in my classes.
In part two of this series, Keri tells us more about the strategies she has developed to make sure all students can contribute to classroom conversations and learning in meaningful ways.
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