Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
As a young child, she lined up her dolls to teach them lessons in her Kentucky home. By her first year of school, she volunteered to go to the front of the class and teach ABCs with flashcards.
By the time she was a college undergraduate, she was helping build classrooms in Kenya, and before age 30 earning her doctorate and co-authoring a book for Columbia University’s Teachers College Press.
And at age 37, Dr. Meredith Critchfield will be the new Dean of Grand Canyon University’s College of Education, replacing Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, who retires in August.
“All of that is not me but God’s plan for me and my mom instilling in me that my purpose is great, and I need to go forth and achieve it,” said Critchfield, who has quickly ascended the professor ranks and faculty chairs in both online and ground campus in 8 ½ years at GCU.
Critchfield, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, was raised by a middle-school teacher mom, Margaret DeCosta, and knew she wanted to be a teacher by age 4. She never has wavered and now will lead a university that is one of the nation’s largest suppliers of teachers and administrators.
“In my humble opinion, teaching is one of the most noble professions there is, and so the more we can do to uplift the profession, we will not only be better off in the College of Education but in the whole country,” she said.
“Teachers can be a linchpin; they can be game-changers.”
Critchfield says her major goals are to share COE’s positive story of teaching and lead a strategy to face the changes in education prompted by the pandemic.
The College of Education is a foundational piece of GCU’s history and growth, shepherded in the last decade by LaPrade.
“She is a gifted educator,” LaPrade said of Critchfield. “She is passionate about all things teaching and learning, and I can’t think of anybody better to lead the college into the future.”
University Provost Dr. Hank Radda pointed to Critchfield’s distinguished background, amassing more than 40 publications, co-authoring a book on teaching, presenting at 55 international, national and regional education conferences, and earning numerous teaching awards.
Her research interests include literacy education, teaching English as a second language, educational equity and inclusion in urban, multicultural contexts.
“At every school, she was the top of the class,” said DeCosta, who today is retired. “I think they got the right person for the job.”
As such, her innovative education podcast at GCU with Assistant Dean Emily Pottinger is titled “Top of the Class.” The duo started the podcast three years ago to put a positive light on education, interviewing educators from across the country.
“With the narrative that exists today in education, that positive narrative is critical,” Critchfield said. “We can still go out and change the world. We can still go out and be transformative. We can absolutely change people’s lives. We all have that spirit in us every single day. I’m not changing that.”
Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Her collaborative work with Emily Pottinger to implement the ‘Top of the Class’ podcast demonstrated her innovative commitment to fully supporting K-12 educators,” said COE Associate Dean Dr. Marjaneh Gilpatrick. “She’s an accomplished author of several articles about research-based best practices in teacher and leadership preparations in peer-reviewed journals and, most recently, she led the efforts in creating a maker space room for our faculty and students.”
Pottinger calls her co-host a “new generation of leadership” who will undertake the challenges with fresh eyes and innovative ideas.
“She has always had the ability to look outside herself and look at the 10,000-foot view,” Pottinger said. “She can see the small details and know what it’s like to be a faculty member but also understand the big picture and the vision.”
Already, Critchfield has taken an open and transparent style in early meetings, she continued, and seeks collaboration to reach the college’s goals.
“She wants to make sure voices are heard. It’s not hiding behind a door,” Pottinger said. “There’s a lot of hope and high energy and passion to think outside the box. I think she will push us in a good way.”
Critchfield said she’s always had personal drive, and it came out in her days as a competitive swimmer and rower in Kentucky, and a college athlete on the rowing team at Indiana University.
“I learned so much about teamwork, because if you are off a micrometer from the person in front of you, the boat rocks, potentially flipping the boat,” she said. “To this day, I really try to embrace that in my leadership style. How can we all be working in a cohesive unit so no one is flipping the boat and we are all moving forward?”
She’s landed in leadership roles throughout her career.
“I used to joke with myself that I wasn’t competitive, but then I embraced the fact that I am,” she said. “Being in a leadership position is critical. Our college is one of the largest teacher preparation programs in the country, so we have to stay on the cutting edge.”
Critchfield moved to Arizona in 2008 and earned her doctorate at Arizona State University in 2012. The next year, she started at GCU.
“Something drew me to GCU,” she said. “Part of it was my faith. I could tell this was a purpose-driven, faith-filled institution and that felt really good to my soul.
“I know the best institutions are the ones surrounded by purpose, so I knew it was a place I could land and want to be a part of for a long time and the people around me would want to be part of for a long time.”
She said LaPrade is leaving behind a “beautiful legacy” of a culture of kindness and grace, no matter the swift changes happening at the growing University.
“That is a legacy that I can only hope to follow, but they are big shoes to fill,” she said.
A primary goal as she begins her role as dean is to embrace the large online student population and faculty in more efficient ways, connecting adjunct faculty and students to the ground institution to make sure they feel just as valuable to the University.
She also wants to put a face to COE, using social media and other tools of technology to uplift its story, “to really focus on teaching as a vocation and teaching as a calling from God.
“Teaching is something you are able to step into and really make a difference. So I would love for us to share that narrative.”
Critchfield said she also will focus on strategizing during a time of teacher shortages by exploring new modes of education after the pandemic introduced online and hybrid models to many.
“We have to be on the pulse of that change,” she said. “If we adapt to the times, I think we will be better off.”
The swimmer and rower couldn’t resist another metaphor of on-water propulsion. She likened education at times to a huge cruise ship that is slow moving and hard to turn around.
“I think, post-COVID, we need to be more like speed boats,” she said. “We need to be more forward-looking and do it in the face of a teacher shortage. I have no doubt we will do a great job with that.
“That’s how I work. Speedboat.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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