Secrets of Great District Leadership

Superintendent Randy Ziegenfuss talks about secrets of transformational district leadership. Encouraging innovation. The role of principals. The mistakes many districts make in transformational change. The importance of the district team. These are all topics discussed today.

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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.


Enhanced Transcript

178: Secrets of Great District Leadership

From Audio File: 178-Randy-Ziegenfuss @ziegeran
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Vicki: Dr. Randy Ziegenfuss @ziegeran is with us today. He’s Superintendent of the Salisbury School District.

What does it mean to push to the edge of competence?

Now, Randy, today you really talk about “pushing the edge of competence.” OK, what does that mean?

Randy: (laughs) Interesting question.

So the name of my blog is called “Working at the Edge.” A while back when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I was looking at the work of Robert Marzano in the book, School Leadership That Works, his research. He talks in there about 21 Responsibilities of a School Leader.

The one that really drew me to my research and the one that I found most fascinating was the responsibility called the Change Agent. He describes a Change Agent as one who’s willing to challenge school practices that have been in place for a long time and promote the value of working at the edge of one's competence.

So I became very interested in that, and when I was looking for a title for my blog I was like, “I think I'm a change agent… At least I feel like the work that I do with all the folks within Salisbury Township is that idea of really transforming and changing the way that we do school.”

So this idea of working at the edge of one’s competence, sort of always feeling like I'm really pushing this, and you know I don't always feel comfortable about this.

2 Ways to Look at Being a Change Agent

I think there are two sorts of ways that we look at this.

One is being a learner. I think that we can push ourselves to feel a little uncomfortable as we're learning.

I think the second one is pushing to the edge of being a leader. So how do I push myself to the edge of my competence as a learner? I think that I’m sort of this sort of hyper-charged learner. I’m fascinated by a lot of things, particularly about learning and about education.

So, one of the ways that I learn, along with one of my fabulous colleagues, our assistant superintendent. Her name is Lynn Fuini-Hetten. And we actually have two podcasts similar to this that we do.

One is called “TL Talk Radio,” where we talk to mostly experts in the field and a lot of authors. We use that to push ourselves to the edge of our competence. (We’re) learning lots of new things from those experts.

We have a second podcast that we just started several months ago, which is called “Shift Your Paradigm.” We are trying to approach educational transformation by becoming more learner-centered as opposed to school-centered. So those are two ways of in terms of learning that we're pushing our competence.

Vicki: So we’ll include those links in the Shownotes because I know there are lots of folks who listen who love to listen to podcasts.

How can leaders allow people to move to the edge of competence

So I have a question. You’re a superintendent, Randy. The feedback I get from teachers across the world is that their superintendents don’t necessarily really want to get to the edge of their comfort zone. They really want to stay comfortable because they want to keep their job. What’s your answer to that?

Randy: Hmmm. So I think that goes to that idea of leadership. Leadership isn't always beautiful. (laughs)

Often times you're presented with situations where you have to do something that may not feel all that comfortable. And one of those things is this idea that I'll go back to, you know, “How do we make school more learner-centered? How do we push up against the boundaries of those school-centered things — like taking conversations around traditional grading?”

Lots of schools have those conversations, but as a leader, as a superintendent? You know, if we want to become more learner-centered — Are our grades and grading the way that we do it something that is truly beneficial for our kids? We have to be willing and brave enough to join with the folks within our organization and have those conversations. So, you know, there's the political side of this and part of it is how do you enroll other people in understanding a vision or a direction such as a rethinking education, and making it more learner-centered.

What does “edge of competence” leadership look like?

Vicki: So give us a story. Give us an example of what this looks like, this edge of competence leadership. Do you have one from your district, maybe?

Randy: So… one of the things that I we've learned over the last couple years in this idea of transformation… Our vision for transformation is really pushing the boundaries like, “Really, how do we make school look different than it currently does?”

And one of our biggest takeaways from this conversation has been the importance of the value of the principals. And that’s been an uncomfortable moment for me, oftentimes too. My background is (that) I have not been a principal before, which is something that's probably not common in terms of this role. And having not been a principal before, how do I approach these conversations with the leadership team, with the principals, to do this heavy lifting and get them to understand the value and the importance of this and help them push back against the traditional status quo that some of the other people within the buildings might want to preserve.

So that’s been one of my challenges — having those difficult conversations — and it would be really my colleague and I (Lynn who I mentioned earlier, our assistant superintendent). How do we have those tough conversations with our leadership team without them being that sort of top down? Yeah, you don’t want to be top down. Because yeah, I can direct people to do things, but it's not going to it's not going to stick. It's not going to really get to where we want to be. So how do we have those conversations that give our principals the space to do this transformational work?

Biggest mistakes of superintendents pushing for transformational change in their districts

Vicki: So what are the biggest mistakes superintendents make when they’re trying to push transformational change in their district?

Randy: I would say that the biggest challenge is that we want to move too fast. If you want to truly do transformation you want to create something that is very different from what we currently have it takes time. It takes conversations, because people have to shift their mindsets, and people don't shift their mindset by reading a book or listening to a podcast. They have to read that book or listen to that podcast — and talk to people about it.

Vicki: (agrees)

Randy: They have to push against those edges of their own competence. Like the learners in our classroom, the adults and the educators need to be given the space and the time to do that within their own time. I can't force them to do it. I can only create the conditions by which they do that.

So that would be my biggest advice is to keep pushing, but realize that it takes time, and you've got to give people that time. Otherwise, it's going to be sort of edicts and pushing down that vision, and people really won't embrace that or understand it.

Vicki: (agrees)

Pep Talk for District Leadership Teams

So Randy, would give a 30-second pep talk to all those in a district office to help them remember why they’re important?

Randy: District office folks are important because you are the folks that initially get the ball rolling in terms of an audacious vision.

If we don't have the people in the central office — the superintendents, the assistant superintendents, the curriculum directors — looking at the edges of where we are and where we could be in education, we're only going to continually get to have pockets of innovation and those pockets are really important.

It’s important to have individual schools that are Innovative and individual classrooms that are Innovative. But if we want to look at whole system change — which is something that I think does push up against that edge of one's confidence. That's a big, audacious, transformative change and vision.

The space to make it happen

You’ve got to have those people in those key positions at the district level understanding what that is and really driving it, too. You can drive that by certainly tapping into the knowledge and wisdom of the people who are running the schools, those principals and those teacher leaders as well. Have them inspire you to look out into the future and figure out what could that vision be, and then how do you give those folks the space to make that happen?

Vicki: I love that. Give them the space to make it happen.

You know, teachers, so much of what we talk about is to teachers. But here’s the thing. Our students need us to be a team, having a vision and pushing forward. As teachers, when we have a visionary front office, when we have a visionary superintendent, visionary principals — there’s no limit because they remove the obstacles. They give us space to innovate. We can do incredible things. District leadership is so important.

Randy, thank you for coming on the show to talk about it.

Randy: My pleasure, Vicki! Thank you for the invite.

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Randy Ziegenfuss currently serves as Superintendent in the Salisbury Township School District ( Prior to his current position, Randy was a classroom teacher, Department Chair, Technology Integration Specialist, Director of Technology and Assistant Superintendent. Randy is also Clinical Adjunct Professor of Education at Moravian College, teaching courses in inquiry, assessment and technology in the undergraduate, graduate and principal certification programs.

He graduated from Moravian College with a B.Mus. degree, earned his M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University in technology leadership, and an Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in educational and organizational leadership. In 2014, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA) recognized Randy as the Outstanding District Administrator for the state of Pennsylvania. In 2015, Randy was recognized by the Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology (PAECT) as the Outstanding Leader of the Year. Read Randy’s blog and listen to the podcasts co-hosted with @lfuinihetten at and

Blog: Twitter: @ziegeran

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.) This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Garvin Alston October 30, 2017 - 8:20 pm

This blog was perfect because it gave me another insight on how leaders must be tough on their workers. As a teacher I must be hard on my students sometimes in class in order to be an effective leader.

Richard Rundhaug November 2, 2017 - 1:39 pm

This was an incredible article. It served as a meaningful reminder as to why we need to continue with the mission of our careers even when the chips are down. We need to remind ourselves that district leadership is challenging and that at times it is lonely. However, the end result is worthwhile. The result is often the change for thousands of students’ lives. Great reminder that we need to dig in and press for the necessary changes in our school systems.


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