“Learning every day for every student; leadership every day for every shareholder.”


Erik Ketcherside

Debbi Burdick (EdD ’04) has carried many titles in the four decades of her education career. In 2017 she added Arizona Superintendent of the Year in recognition of her 13 years at the top of the Cave Creek Unified School District north of Phoenix. The award program is the most prestigious in her field, created in 1988 by the American Association of School Administrators. As the Arizona honoree, Debbi will be recognized at the March AASA conference, where the national winner will be announced.

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College alumni are a familiar presence at that event. Jeffrey Smith (BAE ’81, MEd ’86, EdD ’04) was the state honoree in 2013, as was Calvin Baker (BAE ’81) in 2012. And the 1991 state winner, Carol Peck (BAE ’71, MEd ’75, EdD ’79) advanced to become National Superintendent of Year.

Debbi came to Phoenix in 1995 as a principal in the Wilson Elementary School District, then worked as a principal in the Washington Elementary District until 2004. That’s when, she says, “I was thrilled to join CCUSD as associate superintendent of teaching and learning. That’s where I reside [with husband, Gary] and where two of my children went to school.” She was promoted to superintendent in 2008.

Meet Debbi

Where are you originally from?

Illinois. I was born in Chicago and grew up in the northwest suburbs, then lived in Decatur, Illinois, for 20 years after getting married in college. [She earned her BA at Western Illinois University, and master’s degrees in elementary education and educational administration at Eastern IU.]

What was your first education job?

I started my teaching career in the Decatur Public Schools teaching second grade, but first grade was my favorite because I loved teaching reading. I was also a Title I reading teacher and a Reading Recovery teacher. In 1988, I received a U.S. Department of Education Christa McAuliffe grant to start a districtwide teacher mentoring program that allowed me to work as a teaching consultant for new teachers in the district. My next job was as an elementary principal.

Why did you choose an education career?

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis, was a phenomenal educator. So inspiring and encouraging. Starting in fourth grade I knew I wanted to be a teacher, just like her, and I never waivered. I love teaching, and I love helping someone learn something new!

What are your greatest challenges as superintendent of CCUSD?

Like most superintendents, the number one challenge is not having the proper resources to educate our students. I know many Arizonans tire of hearing us beg for more dollars, but our state is 50th in the nation in financing education. We have to step up and fund education.

The second issue, somewhat related to the first, is the shrinking pool of educators. This was the first school year that our district went through the entire first semester with open teacher positions.

Did your EdD from MLFTC do a good job of preparing you for your current position?

[The EdD program] was the most exciting educational program I have ever experienced. It not only prepared me for executive leadership but also for the nuances and special challenges we face in Arizona. My professors were leaders to learn from who became trusted advisors and mentors as we moved onto higher levels of administration. There was definitely rigor and high expectations — all so important for superintendent roles — and such rich, deep and challenging dialogue that when our classes were over and we began our individual dissertation work, I very much missed the interactions with cohort-mates.

One of the skills of good leaders is bringing together disparate groups to work together toward common goals. How did the program prepare you for that?

There was practical instruction from many leaders in the field who came to speak to us or actually were our professors who challenged us with in-baskets on actual events. Not only did we discuss these, but we often were asked to role-play or act them out. This was a significant part of our classes and laid a solid groundwork for future issues. In addition, our discourse steered us to realize the critical importance of clear and transparent communication with all stakeholder groups, no matter how difficult.

Who are some leaders you admire?

My grandfather was a Greek Immigrant who started a Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago and became their first board president. He taught me my first lessons on leadership by example, and also by his commitment to education and how important it is to learn new things. My mother taught me the ethics of leadership, again by example, and by the way she graciously led her life. As I moved into the world of work, I have admired many educational leaders who supported me by listening or coaching — always tasking me to make decisions I can stand by and defend.

How do you motivate principals in your district?

With support, praise and honest feedback. A principal’s job can be especially tasking as they juggle so many daily challenges on top of all that is on their job description. They must answer to parents, staff, community and their school district supervisors, as well as mandates from the state and federal government. I focus first of all on finding the “right” principal for any given school community. They are certainly not generic and schools need a close match for their needs and culture. With the right principal in the right spot, I then support them in what they feel is critical for their school community, using their unique leadership style. I always tell principals that if they use the filter of “what is best for your students,” it makes their difficult decisions easier.

What does “innovation” mean to you as an administrator?

Innovation is moving a cutting-edge, progressive goal forward. It is the future, using the lessons from the past and results in a transformation.

In 10 years, how will you evaluate how effective you’ve been as an educator and leader?

Although it sounds cliché, if our students leave us with what they need to be successful, contributing members of society, including enjoying their lives and a continuation of learning — whatever that might be — we have been effective. In addition, if the colleagues I have led or worked with always felt valued and listened to, and learned something along the way, that would be a valid indicator for me. My personal leadership mission is, “To ensure learning every day for every student; leadership every day for every shareholder.”

Learn more about the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College EdD in Leadership and Innovation, offered in-person or online, at our Graduate Programs Showcase.