St. Francis teacher of 31 years, talks about new role in education

Students were stunned at St. Francis High School last spring when Lee Erickson announced he was retiring after teaching mathematics for 31 years at the school.

About a dozen alumni who had graduated years earlier, with the class of 2008, contacted Erickson to ask if they could gather one last time and buy him dinner after hearing his news.

Lee Erickson taught math in the St. Francis School District for 31 years. Submitted photo
Lee Erickson taught math in the St. Francis School District for 31 years. Submitted photo

He told those former students at their dinner that his life in a classroom was not finished, and he wants to share the same update with all former students and families who would remember him.

He continues to live in Coon Rapids and now he also is working there, in the math department at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

Erickson has been teaching 13 credits of pre-algebra and beginning algebra on the campus since Aug. 25.

The fall semester will wrap Dec. 19 and when classes resume in January, he will be teaching more beginning algebra (which meets five days per week) plus one, three-hour night course in the higher-level college algebra.

He taught all levels of math through his years at St. Francis.

He followed his own graduation from Mound-Westonka High School in 1973, by completing a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of St. Thomas.

St. Francis welcomed him for a job in its math department immediately in 1977, and he began coaching ninth-grade football and assisted with coaching the girls’ softball and boys’ basketball teams. Erickson found an area need for summer recreation, too, and created a fast-pitch softball program that played in June and July.

He admits to having felt run down from his year-round commitments by 1983, when a high school classmate suggested at their 10-year reunion that Erickson pursue an actuarial career.

Erickson took the jump in 1985, joining the corporate actuarial division of Lutheran Brotherhood insurance.

Compared to the bustle of high school hallways and classrooms, he says that he found work in an actuarial office to be “every bit as calm” as promised.

It became too calm. “I started missing all the hectic life of a teacher,” he said.

A big part of him was missing St. Francis, and he sought and received a position back in the high school’s math department in 1990. It was promised as only a one-year temporary position while a female teacher took maternity leave, but that colleague decided to leave the department for a longer time and Erickson remained and stayed among the school faculty through last spring.

He was the head coach for girls’ softball through his first five years back in the building and he also coached 10th-grade boys’ basketball.

He resumed a tradition from the late 1970s by leaving home before 4:30 a.m. each school day to greet students who sought more instruction starting at 5 a.m. Other activities in the afternoon prevented most of them from seeking help in math after school.

Erickson frequently brought juice, fruits, granola bars and sometimes doughnuts for those early mornings on special test days. Another employee or other adult living in the district thought enough of Erickson’s dedication that they submitted his name for a KARE 11 “Take Care of Your Community” award, and a news crew from that station visited his room one morning in April 2010. (The link of that footage remains on KARE 11’s website.)

To qualify for his new position at Anoka-Ramsey, Erickson recently completed 16 master’s credits in math through Bemidji State University, following some master’s work in curriculum and instruction 20 years ago through St. Thomas.

He also brought some college-level experience from St. Francis, where students who took some of his algebra courses plus the trigonometry and calculus classes could earn credits through Southwest Minnesota State University.

As much as he appreciated all students at St. Francis, one difference he has found in the classrooms at Anoka-Ramsey is that each student there is intent on learning (and paying directly for that instruction), while not every student at St. Francis seemed to hold his lessons with high regard, he says.

Still, he fought for each of them.

“I worked for the students and their parents,” Erickson said. “I taught with the same passion as if they were my own kids. I felt a moral obligation to give my best effort.”

An avowed Christian who is active at Constance Free Church, Erickson has always approached his work as how he believes Jesus Christ would do it.

“I was giving an example of loving kids,” Erickson said. “These kids get one chance (at high school).”

By the end of the 1970s, he agreed to facilitate a weekly Bible study on Thursdays before school (with administrators’ approval) but students took control of that program before the next decade. “As time went on and the policies of our country were changing, for the better, it was student-run,” Erickson said.

He hopes to have left a legacy at St. Francis that reflects his beliefs in the importance of math education. He shared a note from upcoming Air Force graduate Andy Haus, a St. Francis class of 2008 graduate who could not attend the alumni dinner last spring, with comments about Erickson’s work.

“You definitely left a lasting impact on many of us kids and it went way beyond trigonometry or algebra. … For me, you taught me how to learn and how to study,” Haus wrote. “I didn’t want to, but you made me and (I) could never thank you enough.”