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Owning Up: Women in Leadership Series

Women account for 41.9% of the workforce in 2023. Yet, the proportion of women in senior leadership roles (Vice-President, Director, or C-suite) has dropped by 10% to 32.2. At Stoltz, we know women make great leaders — and we envision a world where there are an equal number of women in leadership as men. We asked several women we admire who hold leadership positions, or are experts in their field, to share their experiences with us and what leadership means for them. Here is one of their stories.

Debbie Critchfield was sworn in as Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction on January 2, 2023. She previously served for seven years on the Idaho State Board of Education and was appointed to education task forces by Governors Brad Little and Butch Otter. Debbie served as an elected school board member in Cassia County for ten years and was on the executive committee of the Idaho School Boards Association. She is a former local library trustee and Oakley Valley Arts Council president. She worked as the public information officer for Cassia School District for nine years. Debbie and her husband Dave live in Oakley, where they raised their four children. They have three grandsons.

How Unexpected Opportunities Led Me to Shape Education Policy

Believe it or not, when I was young, I didn’t dream of growing up one day to be the state superintendent of public instruction! It’s not in the typical repertoire of “One day, I’ll become a…”

I share this statement with young people all over the state when the discussion turns to future goals. I use this as an example of how preparation, experience, interests, and a willingness to go through doors — especially those that might not look like the ones you thought you were looking for — can lead to incredible opportunities to grow and serve.

My professional decision tree has typically focused on positioning myself to get to the place to solve the issues before me. The journey that led me to my current role kicked off about thirty years ago when, as a young mother, I took a suggestion from a teacher friend and made the decision to become a substitute teacher at my local high school. I had the opportunity to serve in the role for six years and I loved it. 

Because I was at the school and talking with teachers, I got to hear about the school board’s decisions and how they translated to the classroom. I became interested in policy, and when I really questioned some decisions, I thought I should consider running for our school board. I went on to spend 10 years as a board member, including five as chair. I had the opportunity to learn, and it’s one of the most satisfying things I have done. 

While serving on a local board, I had to learn about state policies and rules, and there were times when I was frustrated with decisions at the state level. I sought out opportunities to work with state legislators and the state school board association. These experiences taught me so much about the relationship between state decisions and the impact they have at the local level.  

When I had the “opportunity” to fight breast cancer, I left the local board to focus on my health. After nearly two years of that battle, I had a friend call me and tell me that the State Board of Education had an open seat in my region and she suggested I apply. She said, “Remember all those times you were annoyed with state policy? Here’s your chance to help make good policy!” Over thirty people applied and I figured my chances were very slim. In fact, I didn’t tell my husband I had applied until a month after I’d submitted my application. When he asked me if I thought my chances were good, I told him no. Whoops. 

I was selected for the role and served seven years, including two as president. In this role helping oversee higher education in Idaho, I realized my heart was in K-12 education and that I needed to be in a different seat to really make a difference for Idaho schools. With the support of my husband and family, I campaigned for a year and a half and was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2022. 

I think back to my first day as a substitute and how I sat in my car outside the school asking myself, “What have you done?!” I don’t take my current position for granted and I know that I  worked for it. Sitting where I now sit, I know that I can no longer look to someone else when something is not working well.

Along my journey, there was always a “they.” “They” were the people I could point a finger at when things didn’t go as I thought they should. As an elected official and the leader of the Idaho Department of Education, I carry the weight that I am now “they!” But with that weight comes opportunity. I get to make a difference for our students, schools, communities, and our state, and I want my efforts to be meaningful.

So how does a little girl grow up to be in a position to make that kind of a difference, regardless of what the position is? Be the one to raise your hand and take on the assignment, go out on a limb and say you can do it even when you’re not sure how you’ll figure it out. Ask questions — even the hard ones — and then figure out what seat you need at the table. Bring solutions and ideas, not just criticism. Put a smile on your face and go to work! And then deliver. Once you’ve delivered, look for a new way to make an even bigger difference.  

We never know what’s around the corner or through the next door. Isn’t that a wonderful thought?!