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Shaping Minds: Molly Gerrish

Associate Professor of Teacher Education

Molly Gerrish has a saying.

“It starts at the airport,” she says. “That’s what I call it. It started when I took my students on international experiences and now I use that saying in my classroom.”

Gerrish, an associate professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, recalls the origin of the phrase.

“We were going on an international trip. I had a student who was like, ‘let’s meet at the airport, help me get through customs. I need you there with me.’ I wasn’t going to do that. I told her I was going to be late, that I was running behind. I just knew I wanted this person to do it on her own. She needed to learn and know she could accomplish it on her own,” says Molly.

“I got to the airport and, of course, she’d made it through and checked in on her own and she’s like, ‘you tried that, didn’t you?’” she says. “So it starts at the airport. It starts the minute you come here and meet me. It starts when I’m walking in the parking lot and I see somebody, it starts right there.”

For Molly, that “airport,” if you will, happens to be UW-River Falls.

“I came to River Falls as an undergrad. My major was food science and that’s one of the reasons I came here. My father was a food scientist so I came over here and just fell in love,” she recalls. “I fell in love with how it felt, how it looked. It just felt very much like coming home.”

“I remember my parents dropping me off on the steps of May Hall and they were driving away and I was just standing there like, ‘oh no, now what?’” she says. “Immediately someone came up, grabbed me, and the rest is history really. I’ve never left!”

She says she never thought she would still be here all these years later, but her experience at UW-River Falls was life changing.

“Throughout the course of food science, I was doing things, making ice cream, all these great things, and I kind of felt like, ‘this isn’t really for me, this probably isn’t my calling,’’’ says Molly.  “So then I started looking at different majors and I found communication sciences and disorders and early childhood education and that’s where I landed. It kind of changed the trajectory of my life in a lot of ways.”

After graduation, Molly worked across a spectrum of communities as a teacher before earning her Master of Science in Education from UW-River Falls in 2001. A call from a colleague led to an adjunct teaching job at her alma mater and the rest is history.

Since returning to UW-River Falls as a teacher, Molly has embraced her life’s work - and the spirit of the university – wholeheartedly.

“I’m a Falcon. I bleed red,” she says. “I’m here because I love it here. I believe in this place.”

“I like to be where the students are. So if there’s a sporting event on campus, you’ll probably hear me there. You’ll see me, but probably hear me as well,” she says with a laugh. “It’s very fun. I love going to the dance stuff and all the things happening on campus. Presentations and events, you name it.”

“I like to be that presence and they [the students] know that. The students know that Molly is going to be there and I’m like, ‘yeah I will, just so you know!’” she says. “But that’s kind of the informal stuff that I do that makes an impact. They know that I’m at stuff, that I’m on campus all the time.”

Being a presence on campus isn’t just a hobby for Molly, it’s a crucial part of her teaching.

“I know every student and I know them all very well. They know they can come to me. They know they can sit in my office if they need to and have a moment and then it will be okay,” she explains. “I think knowing them [students] really well is a big part of being a teacher and because I’m a teacher educator, that’s who I am. You learn best through relationships.”

And her airport concept is woven into the heart of her teaching.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘here’s how you teach math and science and English.’ You have to learn how to teach human beings. For me that’s best through relationships and that happens the second you come through my door,” she says. “It starts at the airport. We’re doing this thing together, back and forth, and that’s the best part for me here.”

Much like her passion for all things UW-River Falls, Molly’s passion for her field - early childhood education – is palpable.

“Teaching young children is such a joy for me but teaching their teachers gives me this wonderful opportunity to help them become teachers and help advocate for best practices in early childhood,” she says.

“One time a young gentleman said to me, ‘well if you’re so passionate about early childhood, then why are you teaching us big kids, not little kids?’ I got to thinking about that and I said because if I can teach a class with 25 of you that are into it just like I am and I can inspire you, then you’re going to go out and do so many more things,” she explains.

“That ripple effect, that’s really kind of what I put into my students’ hearts, I think. When they’re in my class, they’re getting the best of me. That’s what I hope they will get from here and that they will give that to their students,” she says.

“For me, teaching at this level means I can really make an impact on what’s going to happen in the field and also what’s going to happen with those teachers that I put in the field. As we elevate the field, we bring up those in it,” she continues. “The support that early childhood needs is part of that advocacy. It’s not as simple as teaching teachers - which is what I do day-to-day - but it’s the trajectory of what we do with those teachers and our advocacy that can really help propel our field as a whole, so people take notice of how important it is.”

Teaching teachers is a task that Molly doesn’t take lightly. She is fully aware of the role that teachers play in society, not just with students, but with parents and families alike, and she emphasizes that with her students.

“Again, I tell them it starts at the airport. When you walk in to a classroom, that teacher is going to make an impact on the parents and the kids. I tell them they have this wonderful power,” she says. “And I ask them ‘what are you going to do with this wonderful opportunity? How are you going to make parents feel safe leaving your child here?’”

“I want my students to feel what it’s like to be a teacher. It’s not just giving a lesson, it’s really about the mindset of being a teacher. It’s not really a role, it’s much more. It’s a life. Either you’re a teacher or you’re not,” says Molly. “I want them to find that in themselves. The challenge for me is how do I demonstrate these practices of what it means to be an educator of humans? It’s amazing, it’s a huge responsibility.”

The weight of that responsibility is not without its rewards, though.

“Someone is choosing to come here [UW-River Falls] and hear what we say and learn from us. I feel like it’s really an honor that I get to do that. Every class that I get, it’s like, ‘you chose to come here and you’re with me and you chose it here.’ It’s cool to know that you have that impact on their lives,” she says.

“When I was in China with my students, we climbed a mountain. I’m riding home in the van that night and everyone was kind of emotional that we had done this really cool, kind of scary thing. Everyone was like, ‘we did this! We lived!’” she recalls. “And as I was watching the students, I realized I’m a part of their story now, whether they like it or not, I am a part of who they are.”

“For me, that’s probably why every day I get up and I’m like, ‘I get to go write a page in this person’s story.’ That’s probably the biggest piece of it for me,” says Molly.

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