Friday, September 9, 2016

Do Leaders Remember the Trenches?

How Soon We Forget …
Do Leaders Remember the Trenches?

What type leader do you see yourself as? How do others view your leadership style? Can leadership be a garment worn based on a time, place or mood and then discarded, or is it part of our DNA? How do leaders self-assess when others view practices as ineffective, aloof or less than role-modely? And, what happens when a leader loses touch with his/her colleagues forgetting what it’s like to be in the trenches?

The following story* illustrates how an individual’s leadership role did not necessarily match what was envisioned, or expected by a teacher in need - ultimately skewing the viewpoint of a potential future leader. (*loosely inspired by actual events)

Leave Your Starbucks in the Car, Please!
Danielle Mizuta, Guest Blogger

Early in my career, I remember a certain 9 year-old dropped off in our special education classroom by his grandmother - with no file or background information to guide my work. He demonstrated extreme behavioral ‘episodes’ which needed immediate attention; however, because school started earlier in Hawaii than other States no one was available to provide input from his previous school. I was stuck.

Having tried what my teacher prep-program taught on behavior and classroom management, I implemented crisis prevention and intervention techniques, to no avail. And, at the school-level, we also tried to handle issues ‘in-house’ whenever possible, using resources available, but when all efforts were exhausted, we turned to the ‘big guns’ - the saviors who could swoop in and guide us through challenging times - our District Support Staff.

On a day when my 9 year-old was showing signs of another ‘episode’, I eagerly awaited this district hero - my savior - to arrive and provide much needed support!  Initially I envisioned a sleeves-rolled-up partner-in-crime who would immediately join me on the floor and demonstrate how to interact appropriately with the challenging situation. So, imagine my surprise when the highly regarded role model walked through the door in heels, carrying an expensive laptop, sporting manicured nails and carrying an iced coffee showing the first signs of condensation.

We made eye contact, she nodded for me to carry on and set up in the corner of my room, while I continued to practice de-escalation techniques with the behaviorally challenged child. Thirty-seven minutes into the situation, my ponytail was askew, I had spit in my right ear, and bite marks on my right forearm. As the child crawled under a table continuing to cause a scene, I embarrassingly glanced toward this leader for support and guidance, only to be met by her continual nodding, and the sipping of her ice-jingling Venti drink.

When my mentor finally approached with a sympathetic smile, I was prepared for her to save me, but was less-than-enthusiastic when she leaned down and simply offered a handful of Skittles to the tantruming student. Trying not to look shocked or disappointed, I found myself caught between exhaustion and disbelief. By this point, I had missed lunch, was dying of thirst and really needed to pee - yet, all I got were reaffirming nods, candy tossed at the student, and the view of an iced cold drink now forming a condensation ring on my desk. I had not received any help, guidance or support, but rather an observer who sat idly taking notes while I tried to contain a less-than-satisfactory situation.

The most significant memory I have of that day was not the spit in my ear, or the look of empathy shown by my Educational Assistant tending to the other students - keeping them away from the profanities, spitting, kicking, biting and lunging displayed by our newest student. Nor was the fact my bladder could burst at any moment really an issue!  But... seeing that iced coffee with the first signs of condensation slowly dripping down the side of the cup, and feeling the pangs of jealousy because I couldn’t even get myself a drink from the broken water fountain outside the classroom - was more than I could handle!  

That moment transformed me - is that what leaders do? Is that what I would be like if I choose to pursue leadership? And, have educational leaders lost touch with what it’s like to be in the classroom? How can someone with a title and recognized for being a role model forget what it’s like to be in the trenches? If that was what being a leader looked like, then count me out! <Deep Sigh>

It took a long time for me to recover from that year, and the memory of what a leader may or may not be was etched pretty deeply into my psyche. Was this really the direction I wanted to head in my career or this profession? Should I let one bad apple ruin the opportunity for me to grow as a professional or inhibit my ability to support others in the future? Or, was there another way to lead?

Since that time, I’ve directed all my energy into building relationships first with colleagues, and I do everything in my power to truly understand their classroom, school expectations, strengths and needs before deciding how to proceed. I aspire to be a guide, mentor, role model (and hero if needed) when called upon, and I always leave my Starbucks in the car!

Danielle Mizuta (MEd) is an Autism Consulting Teacher with the Windward District, in Hawaii, and recently honored as a member of the "2016 Team of the Year" through HIDOE. Danielle co-teaches in an Intensive Training Center where she coaches and mentors teacher candidates and special education teachers. She is a Hope Street Fellow, and a Mentor trainer with the New Teacher Center - a “2014 Team Excellence Award Merit Finalist” with her State Induction Team. She received her BS in Communication Studies and a Minor in Dance from California Polytechnic University Pomona, and her Master’s in Educational Foundations and Master’s in Special Education from the University of Hawai’i.  Follow Danielle on Twitter (@Kohola11)


  1. This is a great reminder regarding the importance of building relationships and walking the walk. Thank you for reminding me to be cognizant of other people's perception of me. Sometimes I need a reminder to step back and consider other's perceptions so that I can check myself and ask, "How well is my intent aligned with my actions?" More importantly, I can adjust my actions accordingly.

  2. Mahalo Danielle!! I found myself nodding my head as I read your piece. Like you, I found myself in a very similar situation when I was in the classroom (almost scary similar!), Now out of the classroom and in a coaching position I live by the mantra: "Leadership is Action not Position!" I am a firm believer and continue to strive in the Leadership Role as Literacy Coach---to be able to “walk the talk” otherwise known as “walking the walk.” The importance of “showing and not telling”--- being willing and able to “jump in the trenches” with classroom teachers to lead and learn alongside them. :)

  3. What an experience and thank you for sharing. As an aspiring leader, it is important to look at a story like this and evaluate what perception I am giving to others. Early on in my new leadership role, I find myself constantly trying to share with teachers how I relate to them and how I was just there in the classroom (because some teachers already have a certain perception when you are in a support position), but I can see this fading away. Soon, I will be a teacher out of the classroom for too long and I have to make sure that I find ways to relate to the teachers "in the trenches." Thank you for this article and the reflection that it has brought upon me.