Over the past several months on the Building the Bridge podcast, Dr. Wendy Oliver and
a variety of guests have discussed social-emotional learning through a variety of lenses
– how to integrate it into blended instruction, how digital tools can enhance SEL, and
more. A silver lining of the pandemic has been increased attention to SEL, with
education professionals from all roles and backgrounds gaining a new perspective on its
importance and their role in supporting students’ well-rounded needs. It’s important to
also keep in mind that teachers and administrators have experienced the challenges of
the pandemic, as well, and supporting their needs is also a priority. In a recent podcast
episode, Dr. Oliver had the opportunity to speak with award-winning superintendent, Dr.
Randy Ziegenfuss (who this spring retired as Superintendent of the Salisbury Township
School District in Pennsylvania), to discuss what he and other administrators faced
during this challenging two-year stretch. Dr. Ziegenfuss discussed how some things
have changed, how new approaches to learning took hold, and how a good leader
boosts morale among teachers.
Let’s begin by looking at the approach to learning. In Salisbury Township, instruction is
always student-centered, and teachers are encouraged and empowered to focus on the
learner. The key is to figure out who your students are and the challenges they face.
Learning looks different now and part of the challenge is to make sure everybody has
access. This includes internet and device access, as well as a space to do school work.
Teachers have additional matters for consideration to make sure they themselves have
everything they need for a remote set up. They also need to answer questions like,
“How can we make sure we have moments of direct instruction?” and “How do I support
my students?” According to Ziegenfuss, “Our content is kind of meaningless unless our
learners are mentally prepared.” When teachers are provided with training and are
comfortable with technology, it enables them to engage students in a remote setting.
This kind of support makes a significant difference in morale.
Speaking of morale, treating teachers like professionals is a huge morale booster.
Ziegenfuss points out that there is often such a big focus on getting kids back to in-
person learning, that we typically only focus on the students in that conversation. There
are adults involved, too, and their health and safety are equally as important as the
health and safety of the students. Spoken like a true leader, Ziegenfuss stated his
thoughts for boosting morale: “Whatever decisions we make, we make for our
community. That includes the adults and the teachers as well. As leaders when we
make those statements, that builds trust, it builds support, it builds a culture which helps us move forward in these really unusual times. In these times we have to move forward
quickly. We oftentimes have to pivot at a moment’s notice. When you have that trust
and people know that you have their best interests at heart, they will move quickly with
When asked what some of the biggest challenges are during this difficult period with
respect to teaching and learning and any other factors that may come into play when
running a school district, the short answer was “Staying focused on the mission and
vision.” He goes on to explain that things come up daily that are unsolved or unsolvable.
There are problems that we previously never had to consider nor imagine. So much
energy now goes to solving operational issues. “It’s been exhausting and very
challenging to try and balance out those operational things of just keeping the place
going, along with moving forward on the transformation or the change that you want to
see happen in teaching and learning.”
To hear more perspective from Dr. Randy Ziegenfuss, listen to the full episode here.