MOHAI honors Newcastle Elementary School’s Liza Rickey as Teacher of the Year

November 29, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Newcastle Elementary instructor Liza Rickey, recently named the MOHAI Teacher of the Year for 2011, presides over her fourth grade class, leading them through a math lesson. Photos By Tom Corrigan

Newcastle Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Liza Rickey leaves no doubt that part of her teaching philosophy is to challenge her students as much as possible.

“I set high standards,” she said. “I expect a lot out of my students.”

Rickey’s philosophy recently has gotten her some attention. At a ceremony in November, Rickey was named the Museum of History & Industry’s 2011 Teacher of the Year.

“Rickey was being honored for her innovative hands-on strategies that make social studies come alive for her students,” said Tara McCauley, MOHAI’s manager for education programs.

Rickey’s award carried with it a $1,000 honorarium. By pure coincidence, Rickey had taken her class on a “Cracking the History Code” field trip at MOHAI the day she learned she had won the MOHAI award. Such field trips have students searching for clues in the museum in order to gain the code that unlocks a mystery box given to visiting classes.

Newcastle school volunteer Liz Tupou said she was at first “flabbergasted” at the amount and depth of the homework Rickey regularly assigns her students, including Tupou’s grandchild. Tupou also said Rickey encourages parents not to help kids too much with their homework.

“They rise to the occasion,” Tupou said of the students.

While Rickey received her MOHAI award for her teaching of social studies, she said science is a passion. Her initial degree from the University of Washington is in zoology.

But Rickey said when she went looking for a job after graduation, she realized every job she had previously — from nanny to camp counselor — involved children. She also noticed something else about herself.

“I realized I was way too social to be sitting in a lab somewhere,” said Rickey, who eventually earned a master’s in teaching.

Presently, Rickey’s fourth-graders are studying the concept of density. She admits it is a difficult idea for them to fully understand, but as seems typical of her thinking, she also believes it is something her students eventually can grasp. To help them out, Rickey has supplied two definitions of the concept. The first is a simple one aimed at fourth-graders; the other is the adult definition. Rickey is convinced her students need and can use both.

In picking a teacher to honor, MOHAI education leaders look at teachers who have made use of some museum resource, said Danielle Bias, MOHAI’s marketing officer. They then invite local principals to nominate a teacher, she said.

Rickey said that early in the school year she had students investigating what she called an explorer’s artifact trunk supplied by MOHAI. Students had to identify the objects within the trunk, things such as furs and a sexton. Rickey admitted a candle mold stumped her students, who also had to come up with different items they thought were appropriate for the trunk.

This is Rickey’s first year at Newcastle Elementary. She previously helped set up the science magnet school program at Clark Elementary School.

Rickey said she tries anything to engage students and involve them in learning.

“This year, she had students create a class constitution for themselves, in lieu of just posting the rules,” MOHAI’s McCauley said.

“I am a firm believer in empowering kids, in putting the learning in their hands,” Rickey said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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