A duct-taped chair, a wooden submarine, a taxidermy beaver and murals of trout and Truffula trees — these are a few of the things Nancy Cormier saw Thursday during a tour of her new office.
“It’s much more colorful here,” Cormier, vice president at Morrison-Maierle, remarked to her fifth grade guides at Hawthorne Elementary.
It was a Seussical kind of day for school principals and a dozen business leaders, who “traded places” to get a glimpse of life in the other’s shoes.
Cormier swapped with Hawthorne principal Deb Jacobsen. The two began the day at a school staff meeting and would end with a tour of the engineering firm’s Helena office.
The program, put together every two years by the Helena Education Foundation, helps community leaders become engaged with public education while offering a chance for school administrators to learn about local businesses, Executive Director Lisa Cordingley said.
Building administrators are also community leaders, she said, but “they don’t often have the opportunity to see how other leaders operate in their line of work.”
The exercise has also spawned partnerships, she added, like a relationship between the YMCA and Bryant Elementary that has kids coming to school early to exercise.
“We try to be thoughtful about the pairings,” Cordingley said.
Some other swaps this year include Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Mike Frank and Four Georgians Principal Melinda Thompson, Steve Bartmess of Bob’s Valley Market and Smith school Principal Jilyn Oliviera, and Independent Record Operations Manager Anita Fasbender and Warren Principal Tim McMahon.
At Hawthorne, Cormier spoke with students about what it means to be an engineer.
She asked students if they’ve ever been to Costco with their parents or flown out of the Helena airport or flushed a toilet. Hands shot up.
Cormier explained that Morrison-Maierle designed the Custer interchange, helped replace runway lights at the airport and engineers water treatment plants.
“I think it’s fun, because you design something and you make it, then people use it,” she said.
To another class, she explained how both math and reading are important skills for engineers. She said many students decide in high school to study engineering, but there are many routes into the profession.
That conversation carried into principal Jacobsen’s office, where the two shared stories about their respective communities.
Cormier said she’s glad that, despite her management duties, she is able to participate in the company’s community projects and even do some engineering herself.
“I’m just thinking of the parallels,” Jacobsen said. “It’s a similar emphasis of working with a community to solve problems.”
Jacobsen was a longtime middle school teacher before deciding to return to school to become a school administrator. She has been a principal for the past two decades.
“There are days when it’s so difficult. Even though we have little bodies, we have big issues,” Jacobsen said.
Just as engineer-turned-manager Cormier continues doing engineering work, Jacobsen is able to connect with her students. As the two chatted, a student strolled through the open office door requesting some copies.
“Just a minute,” she said, then asked the student to show Cormier his reading Olympics medal.
“I get to be a part of their lives and their learning and laughter and sorrows,” Jacobsen said.
Cormier added that, as a working parent, she couldn’t spend as much time with her young children each day as their teachers. She said she appreciates the difficulty teachers face in caring for so many students at once.
“It’s a challenge, and I admire teachers for doing it,” Cormier said.
Later they would visit the STARBASE math and science program at Fort Harrison and eat lunch in the school cafeteria before switching gears to spend the afternoon at the engineering office.
Jacobsen said she always finds the experience enlightening. She has traded places four times, including a ride in the sheriff’s patrol car.
“It’s a great educational tool for educators to see who’s out in the community who supports us,” she said.