While I have been in leadership roles in the past, my role in Student Affairs at Ryerson has me in my first supervisory role “officially”, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what leadership means, and I’ve been assessing my own performance as much as I have been thinking about how the students I work with can do even better in their work.
In the summer, I conducted interviews to assemble my student team – this was my first time on the other side of the interview process, and knowing how nerve-wracking interviews can be, I tried to create as comfortable a space as possible. When evaluating candidates, I tried to look at the whole picture: what skills do they already have, but, also, what can I help develop? Most importantly, how will they work with the team? My vision for this year’s RU Student Life team was that it would be heavily based on teamwork, if not in the actual workflow then at least in a spirit of celebrating each other’s accomplishments, giving and receiving feedback, and collaborating on projects as much as possible. This is because I believe a central aspect of leadership is in fact teamwork and a learn-from-each other approach.
My approach to leadership has always been to facilitate learning, to assist and mentor rather than delegate, and I think it’s for this reason that so far the team has been both successful in their work as well as has grown a strong investment in what they do. I saw a similar relationship grow when I practiced facilitation as the root of my graduate research work, where I facilitated (rather than “taught”) digital storytelling to a group of young mothers. What I found was that by facilitating the participants’ work, rather than focusing on specific skills that might be “required” to complete their projects, the young women developed the skills they saw as important, including basic technical processes but, more importantly, confidence in articulating their needs and values and in storytelling.
I saw emerge a sort of agency and control over their own narratives that I do not believe would have come through had I taken a more hard-and-fast approach to leadership, for example if I had led the workshop as a series of technical-skills based teachings whose sole goal was the development of technical skills without an attention to personal experiences, needs, and learning styles. Much of my facilitation was one-on-one in this case, and therefore I’m now trying to take what I learned about facilitation and agency and apply it to a group dynamic as well as one-on-one.
I’m trying to assist the crafting of the same type of agency in the students I work with, which I’d like to confidently say I am already seeing. Granted, the students I hired already possessed a keen sense of leadership and drive, which attracted me to them in the first place. However, I saw in several of them a certain space to continue developing what agency might mean, looking at them always from their unique positions and trying to amplify the voices they already have. RU Student Life is an incredible opportunity for the team to have their voices heard and to represent the students at Ryerson in a way that is both unique to them and yet relatable to a broad audience.
For example, it’s not often that I have “assigned” specific topics for an individual blogger or videographer to produce, because the ideas have been flowing endlessly from each of them. Rather, I have facilitated those ideas into writing or videos that their authors are proud of and that have wide reach across the student audience. Facilitation in this case has been anything from simple copy-edits to a brainstorming session on how best to tackle an idea, where I’ve offered my input and yet I try to always allow the authors’ final word and voice to ring through over anything.
The most validating part of this work so far has been seeing the students’ ownership of the community they represent and investment in their work. When a particular blog or video does really well, read or viewed by thousands across campus, the team and the particular author whose work is celebrated feel a true sense of pride. Even more, when a piece doesn’t do as well as expected, the team expresses interest in learning why and how they can improve for next time. Hearing feedback like “I am overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the response to my blog,” and “These are the little things that make a huge impact on my life. I appreciate your feedback on my work.” and “I can’t believe writing blogs is my job, when last year I was working for McDonalds” is an incredible feeling because I get to be a part of that pride as well as seeing each of their work grow and develop. Each blog has been better than the last, each video more creative, and seeing the springboard effect of idea-to-idea spread through the team makes me feel so privileged to work with such a talented team.
For World Kindness Day, the team blew me away and showed leadership and spread kindness across campus.
Finally, one of my goals in this position was to facilitate the production of meaningful and thoughtful writing and ideas that are not only relevant to students but to youth and society at large. Much of the work I’ve been able to assist in creating has voiced ideas that I myself hadn’t been able to fully articulate when I was my students’ ages. From tackling street harassment (blog forthcoming) and slut-shaming, to exposing personal experiences with anxiety and panic attacks, to looking at homophobia and the power of language, the reflective and thoughtful pieces are making an impact across campus as much as the more light-hearted pieces we all enjoy.
Defining “meaningful” was a challenge I had given myself at the start of this role, and I passed this challenge onto the team, who have stepped up in full Technicolor. I think part of this has been seeing each other approach difficult or personal topics and feel inspired to do the same. Learning from each other, then, at the root of my facilitation practice, has aided this balance, between musings on student life and introspective pieces on society, to thrive.
It’s mid-November and much of my first few months in this role was spent figuring out what the day-to-day looked like, observing what the Student Affairs community already looked like and how I wanted to work within it, and learning how to work with students individually as well as in a team. I hadn’t realized until now that this also meant figuring out what kind of supervisor I am. I’m not sure how long it took each of the students to feel invested in their work, but I know I’m still crafting a sense of ownership over what I do. Seeing the students celebrate their successes has been a huge motivator to look at everything we do as an opportunity to develop a voice and to impact our community, a feeling I’m riding into the next semester and which is helping me answer the question of what “meaningful” looks like and what that means as a supervisor.