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  • Kathleen Bortolin

Reflecting on a year in crisis: What the pandemic taught me about little “l” leadership

Updated: Mar 1


For many the crisis was covid. For others it was the various consequences of covid: increased workload, learning to teach online, children that needed to be home-schooled. Additionally, there was the accoutrement of dread—about elderly parents and relatives, economic fallout, potential or real jobloss, and students—how were our students managing? Yet for many of us, even amid the throes, there were silver linings: working at home; revelations about what online learning can actually do; the experience of watching ourselves overcome some of our most difficult professional moments. For me, one of the transformative, soul-shifting consequences of covid was witnessing across my institution the gentle and unassuming mastery of little “l” leadership.


Working at a teaching and learning centre meant that when covid hit and we transitioned to online teaching, I was thrust alongside everyone else into this dust storm of madness. Tired, at time even a little hopeless, my colleagues and I carried on digging deep for the goodness and supporting when and where we could. Like many. But despite the dust, and at times, the ugliness, I’m grateful to have been in that place of messiness; it enabled me to see all the pieces of this transition, swirling around, not in the theoretical, but right there in front of me, in the real.


It was in this messy space that I witnessed resiliency and optimism; grit and empathy; creativity and risk-taking--many of the leadership qualities I was craving. I saw it in instructors who spent weeks and months learning to use online tools, and then making choices about which of those tools would support student learning most effectively. I saw it in the balance that was sought between synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and the student-centered reasoning behind those decisions. I saw it in the courage of instructors who collected and read feedback, feedback that was at times a little clumsy, insensitive, painful. But who despite this challenge, made real efforts to reflect on and adjust their teaching based on that feedback. I saw it in those who offered choice in how and when students completed assignments, and in the flexibility shown overall with assessment. I saw it in the questions that were being asked of me, and the creativity being used and risks being taken by colleagues, all in order to make courses as accessible and as meaningful as possible. I saw it in the little moments, and in those who celebrated the accomplishments of their colleagues, and who showed up always to help others despite their own struggles. And I saw it in the students who rose to countless challenges, learning new ways of learning, supporting their instructors with grace and gratitude.


And there they were, these qualities of remarkable leadership, swirling around with the rest of the yuck. I could reach out and touch them. Because I was right there. In those spaces.


What is once seen, is sometimes impossible to un-see. Have you ever played Tetris? Or used Prisma to turn your photos into art? You go about your day seeing the world through a new lens, fitting buildings into one another, seeing surf red and blue in landscapes in your neighbourhood. For me, once I noticed these leadership qualities, I began to see them showing up everywhere, not in the big spaces or in the big picture. Because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the big spaces. I was at home. In zoom meetings. In the small spaces. The messy, at times, ugly spaces. In the in-between spaces of teaching and learning, of dread and wonder, of giving up and carrying on. But it was in those precarious spaces that I witnessed leadership like I had never seen it before. The little “l” s.


As we move forward into years of fiscal reorganization, making agile and creative decisions to bring our ledger sheets from red to black, how will little “l” leadership be recognized, celebrated, and saved? How will our sector, and some of our big “L” leaders acknowledge the ways in which little “l” leadership showed up, carried on, and transformed us all? Perhaps we need to continue to call attention to and celebrate the power of little “l” leadership, capturing what we saw, and what we continue to see. So that it doesn't disappear or go unnoticed. Maybe we should write an essay on it. As I go forward, continuing to seek out, and find, these leadership qualities in those little spaces, I continue to see grit, risk, courage and empathy thrive despite the dread. And it is in those moments, in those space, that I am witnessing one of my biggest covid silver linings.

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