"Try it on for size!" - Advice from an Elementary Educator
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Meet one of the coolest dudes in school, Dr. Paul Ricks! Dr. Ricks is a professor of children's literature in the McKay School of Education at BYU. Elementary Education has been a large part of his professional life and his higher educational track, but it wasn't always something he knew he wanted to do.
Dr. Ricks would call his route into the field of education "a somewhat circuitous" one. When he first came to BYU as an undergrad, he was a pre-film major. He planned on pursuing his interests and setting himself up for a successful life, as we all do, but on the day that he planned to submit his final application to what he thought was the college of his dreams, everything seemed to come crashing down. He realized that his current career path wasn't going to make him happy. After throwing away his work sample right outside of what could have been his college, which included videos and letters of recommendation, Dr. Ricks recounts that "I had this turbulent mind, and I just thought, ‘I need to go talk to somebody.’ " The academic advisor he visited in the Wilkinson Center soon after listened carefully to his desperate outpouring of confusion. Having listened carefully, the advisor commented that Paul seemed to have a very eclectic set of interests. He also asked if Paul had ever considered studying Elementary Education.
"As soon as [the advisor] said, 'Have you thought about being an elementary teacher?' I will go out on a limb and say that I had like a spiritual experience, a manifestation, an inspiration, a revelation of sorts that I recognized probably based on my mission experience, where there was a conduit of light." Ricks explained. "It was like [God was saying], ‘That’s what I’ve been telling you your whole mission! Do you remember these spiritual promptings I’ve been giving you? You like being around people! You are very interested in all kinds of different subjects. Go and do this thing!’ "
Even though he knew that teaching had the potential to help him feel fulfilled, it wasn't the easiest decision to follow through with. Dr. Ricks explained that he felt "serious tension" when considering teaching "because I felt like if I became a teacher, I was saying no to becoming a rockstar." Making enough money was also something he struggled with. Even so, Dr. Ricks followed the prompting and "walked over to the McKay Building the next day and said, ‘I think I want to be an elementary education major.’ " There were times throughout his undergrad experience when he felt weird being the only male in the class, and it occasionally made him question his decision.
"But I don’t second guess it at all," Ricks stated firmly. "Being a teacher gets you out of your own head, and you have to look outward. And I don’t know if I do that super well, but I know that I feel the best when that is happening, when [I'm] thinking about other people. ... I think that being an elementary teacher has softened me in a lot of ways. The raw material was always there, but I was a little bit of a rough stone rolling. It helped me be the kind of person I always wanted to be anyways."
In hindsight, Dr. Ricks recognized that his interests remained the same even though he changed his life's direction. He said, "I think what interests me about [making documentaries] is very similar to what interests me about teaching, which is: Why is it that these humans have chosen to do this quirky little thing, and how can I be a part of that? How does it affect me? How can I affect them? How can we affect each other?"
When asked about what he enjoys about teaching, Dr. Ricks related that he loves "making person-to-person connections." He said that he also loves using stories to reach beyond the mundane and help students see "how [it is] that [a] subject we talked about all day can help us see each other – really see each other." Additionally, Dr. Ricks mentioned that "I am consistently impressed, taken aback, and surprised by how brilliant my students are. ...You would think that being a teacher in elementary school [means that] you’re the resident expert; therefore, you have all of this knowledge to share. But I didn’t think like that. I thought it was very symbiotic or synergistic where we were learning together." He feels the same way now that he is working with older learners.
Here are some things that Dr. Ricks wishes someone had told him back when he was going through the program himself:
*Your Major: “I don’t believe that there is one thing in the entire universe that will either make you totally happy or totally sad 100% of the time. ... I don’t think there is a job that will make or break your happiness [either]. ...[Happiness is] always a choice.”
*Become a rockstar: “People who are considering [teaching]: I think, at least for me, there was serious tension because I felt like if I became a teacher, I was saying no to becoming a rockstar. You know, by opening some doors I had to close others. ... [But] it wasn’t that I shut the door on [other interests completely; it’s just that] I shut the door on these professionally, but I can still do them to a high level. I can still do them with love, and I can still do those things and find serious enjoyment.”
*Try it on for size: For those who are considering education, "try it on for size! And if it’s not [your] thing, it’s okay to do something else, but these teaching courses aren’t going to ruin you! ... I didn’t think I was going to become a children’s lit. professor when I started out as an elementary teacher eleven-plus years ago. There are still ways to change and trajectories that come up." If eventually "you want to start something over, you’re not 500-years-old. It’s okay to do that. That would be my hippie advice -- it’s okay to do something and not be worried about it.”
Dr. Ricks finished his undergrad having double-majored in Elementary Education and Portuguese. After five years of teaching fifth and sixth grade, he returned to the McKay School of Education for a Masters Degree in Teacher Education with an emphasis in Literacy. After being mentored by his professors and teaching at BYU as a grad student, he realized that he loved Children's Literature and pursued a PhD program in Children's Literature at Penn State. Some of Dr. Ricks' current fields of study include comparing similar children's texts and seeing how they complement and contradict each other, and discovering the effects of read alouds to adults; specifically, pre-service teachers in their junior year at BYU.