My Journey as 2019 Oregon Teacher of the Year


EUGENE — I expected a plaque and a handshake. I expected to walk back into my classroom and resume business as usual. What I experienced was one of the most challenging, inspiring, and rewarding years of professional growth in my career.

Let me start by saying it is hard to accept an award like this. Teachers are not used to public recognition of the work that they do, and they do tremendous, phenomenal, work. When they announced my name as 2019 Oregon State Teacher of the Year I immediately thought of the many educators I knew who could and should be recognized for their unwavering commitment to students. As one of 56 state and territory Teachers of the Year we are tasked with sharing our best practices, our most compelling stories, and passions with an audience much broader than our departments and more diverse than the districts we serve. We are asked to name and speak to issues of importance in education to educators and non-educators alike with the hope that in doing so we will contribute to better learning environments for students both in and beyond our classroom walls.

It was this task and diversified audience that forced me and my colleagues to reflect more deeply on our practices than we ever had before. I started by unpacking the first of many challenging questions: “What do you teach?” I knew the answer most people expected, but as a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Health Occupations Teacher, I knew my subject was obscure enough to create looks of bewilderment on even the most seasoned educators. I quickly realized that a question about what I teach can quickly set the wrong tone for a conversation about education, because teachers know our work is not about what we teach, the conversation should be about who we teach. To be a voice for education and the needs of all students we must elevate the voices, stories, and experiences of our students. I learned to tell the stories of my students and colleagues to create a much needed window into the world of education systems.

As educators we all have a duty and means to shift systems by sharing our stories and providing the evidence and currency of context needed to inspire understanding and change. Sharing student stories with legislators, community, and educators can gather collective momentum. In my case, I shared my voice with the Red for Ed Movement in Oregon raising support for the Student Success Act. Sharing our stories also helps to connect us as part of a global village of student advocates and educators.

The other question I grappled with this year was about how I teach. One of the most surprising realizations for me was that after a year of interviews and speaking engagements I never once found myself talking about science or medically themed pedagogy. In 11 years I spent what I thought was a lot of time refining my curriculum to make it more engaging and accessible. I had students running complex and exciting simulations of surgeries and patient care. I recreated laboratory, research, and medical environments and protocols to give students applied access to science and careers. Initially I found myself defaulting to these sorts of contextualized examples, examining my most successful units or lessons and trying to identify the strategies that worked best.

“I seek to always offer student choice and voice in what we learn and how we learn it… I seek to challenge each student and inspire them. These values have always been central to how and why I teach.”

What I soon realized was that I needed to be thinking deeper. I needed to consider my instructional values. I needed to reflect on what I did beyond and behind the content I created that helped enable my student’s success and make them feel loved and safe. It is an interesting exercise to think of sharing your best pedagogical frameworks free of content. I asked myself, “What strategies seemed to work best, who did they serve, and why do I gravitate towards certain strategies? What did they have in common? How could I share what I’ve learned in my classroom with a kindergarten teacher, a math teacher, a PE teacher? How could I learn best from them?”  This practice has been the gem that has reframed and revitalized my already passionate fire for education.

I’ve found that I teach to diversify power structures both in the classroom and beyond. I seek to always offer student choice and voice in what we learn and how we learn it. I do what I must to create time to develop relationships and check in with every student providing a constant cycle of relevant feedback. I seek to challenge each student and inspire them. These values have always been central to how and why I teach.

I have been incredibly honored and humbled to be recognized as the 2019 Oregon State Teacher of the Year. I would like to once again thank the Oregon Department of Education, Council of Chief School State Officers, Oregon Lottery and former Oregon Teachers of the Year who create, sponsor, and support this amazing opportunity for student advocacy and growth in teacher leadership. Though my year is ending, I believe my work is just beginning. It is my belief that every educator deserves to be elevated and recognized for their service and my hope is that each one has the chance to grow through reflecting on and sharing their art with others. This year I hope to continue encouraging educators to collect and share their stories to reclaim the narrative on public education. What ignites your spark? Who do you teach, how do you teach, and what are the values underlying your success with students that you can begin to share with others?

About Author

Keri Pilgrim Ricker is a teacher at Churchill High School, Eugene 4J. She is Oregon's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

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