Starting with possums and tadpoles, GBS science teacher lauded for accomplishments

GLENVIEW — Mary Ann Ericksen’s childhood home in Arlington Heights was known as the “sciency house” to neighborhood kids.

“We were the house on the block that local kids brought animals to for help. Our family was like that,” she said.

“They once brought a baby possum to us, but they thought it was a mouse. I looked it up a book, and we cared for Oppie over the eight or next nine years.”

After graduating from Mount Prospect High School in 1976, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, and master’s of arts in teacher leadership at Roosevelt University, Chicago.

As a college student, she pursued chemistry and environmental studies as majors.

The Glenbrook South Parents Association recently awarded Ericksen’s classroom performance, citing 19 years in the GBS science department.

“The award means a lot to me, both as a member of the GBS science department and as a woman in science,” Ericksen said.

“It doesn’t feel like a job interacting with the high school students. They energize you; I never look at my watch.”

Prior to teaching at GBS, she taught science at Saint Viator High School in Arlington Heights and the Young Adult Education Program in Township High School District 214.

Students and colleagues at GBS described her effort to send home weekly handwritten notes to parents telling them of work done by their children.

“Mrs. Ericksen has succeeded year after year in holding the attention of her students and helping them consistently achieve high scores,” a student wrote in a nomination letter.

“And, even more important, Mrs. Ericksen has also succeeded in capturing the imaginations of her students, and thus helping them achieve the understanding that biology does not solely exist in the pages of their textbooks, but is as alive, complex, and growing as the organisms that it studies.”

Erickson wanted to work the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after college, but federal funding cut the department’s budget, she said.

“So there weren’t a lot of jobs left, and my aunt said maybe I should get certified to teach. She taught until she was 66 years old in Hammond, Ind.”

“I didn’t think it would work out because I was too quiet and you had to be bossy,” she said, laughing.

“I student taught at Fremd High School in Palatine and fell in love with it.”

The guiding principle in the classroom, she explained, was putting students first.

“It’s not about me, but the students and it’s not part of my personality to be on center stage. I also have outstanding teachers around me at GBS,” she said.

Ericksens’ classroom approach is connecting with each student.

For example, a lesson on the skeletal system can become a session for everyone sharing a personal story of a broken bone or a trip to the emergency room.

And a discussion on nutrients can lead to analyzing what goes into a burger and fries from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, she said.

“Fostering a positive classroom atmosphere means lectures become more of a discussion and classmates become more like friends,” Ericksen said.

“Students aren’t going to contribute if they’re worried or self-conscious, but once they feel comfortable they’re willing to ask or share anything, which helps them relate to the subject.”

A member of the National Association of Biology Teachers, in 2010, Erickson presented a talk on engaging and motivating at-risk learners.

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