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From Fire Drills to the Corporate Office


From Fire Drills to the Corporate Office

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

In my prior life in the corporate world, strategic agility was a quality that was prized among employees. That quality is perhaps even more valuable as Head of School, a Montessori Guide, or as a leader with children.

Thursday was one of those days that was stressful. Noticing the smell of hot metal, our staff evacuated the elementary building and we called the fire department. Adding to the stress, two of our lead teachers were ill and were out, reducing our elementary staff by a third.

The fire department arrived, ascertained that the issue was coming from a light fixture, and we shut off all the breakers (because we could not identify which breaker controlled the fixture). After ensuring that the building was safe, the fire department left. We called an electrician, and he assured us he was on the way.

In the meantime, our students and staff did exactly what they should. They evacuated the building, and they lined up in an orderly fashion along the east side of our fence. They waited for instruction.

Once it was apparent that there was no immediate danger and that they might be waiting a while, Jav and Margaret (our guides) dismissed the students to play on the playground. By the time we had the all clear, the children had been outside for nearly an hour.

We now faced a decision about what to do next. Invite the children back into the building without electricity until the electrician arrived? Have them join Children’s House classrooms? Send them home for the day?

The classrooms had plenty of natural light. The boiler was working, and so were all the alarms. We gathered the students and talked about returning to the building.

They had questions:

  • What about the bathrooms?
  • How could they go without lights?
  • What about heating up lunch in the microwave?
  • What if we get scared?

They also had some great answers for each other’s questions:

  • Flashlights for bathrooms
  • Working near windows
  • Heating up lunch in the other building
  • Having a friend nearby if they were scared

Our elementary students quickly recognized that this was no big deal.

The students returned to their classrooms and were even enthusiastic for the adventure and for trying something new. It wasn’t long after lunch that the electrician had found and resolved the problem. Lights were turned on. Power was restored, and the day continued as expected.

Our students had their regular lessons: daily journal, daily math, small group lessons, working through planners. They also had an excellent opportunity to experiment with adaptability and problem solving. Our students exercised their critical thinking skills in developing solutions to the potential problems that seemed big but had some pretty straightforward answers.

In addition to exercising those executive functions, friends experienced in real time the importance of the basics—in a crisis, follow your training. They evacuated and lined up. They waited for attendance and for instruction on what to do next.

I’m so pleased that our students had the opportunity to experience both a successful application of basic skills and an opportunity to flex their executive muscle.

Business, corporate America, and the global economy--none of them run as expected every day and every time. When we look to the adults our children will become, we want them to have both easy access to the basics and an ability to adapt, to rise to the occasion, and to find joy in an unexpected adventure.

While Thursday was nobody’s ideal day, it was an ideal Montessori opportunity. Sounds like a pretty typical day at work to me.



PS—If you’re interested, Forbes has a recent piece that is a good read, Corporate Kindergarten: How a Montessori Mindset Can Transform Your Business.