Six Questions with the New Head of Forest Bluff School
By David A. F. Sweet For the first time in the history of Forest Bluff School, its head is from outside the Lillard family Lake Forest resident Laura Earls, a former Forest Bluff teacher, is now leading the Lake Bluff Montessori school. Founded by Lake Forest resident Paula Polk Lillard in 1982, she served as Head of School until she was succeeded by her daughter, Paula Lillard Preschlack (also a Lake Forest resident) 15 years ago. The younger Paula left Forest Bluff School this year to concentrate on writing a book and speaking about Montessori education. How did Laura, who majored in art history at the University of Dallas, end up dedicating her life to Montessori education? Read more below. How did you get interested in Montessori education? My mother worked at a Montessori school in Dallas when I was three years old, and I spent a year there. Then, when I moved to Milwaukee in the 1990s, I discovered that Margaret Stephenson, who had worked with Maria and Mario Montessori, was an elementary trainer there.
"When I walked back into the building after all these years, I felt I was coming home," says new Forest Bluff Head of School Laura Earls, a former teacher there.
In 1993, I began an intensive Association Montessori International training course for 6- to 12-year-olds. Before the year began and to familiarize myself with Montessori, I read Paula Polk Lillard’s book Montessori: A Modern Approach. Later that year, when I saw an ad for an elementary teacher and it said to contact Paula Polk Lillard, it seemed meant to be! A few years later, I also received my AMI Primary training for 3- to 6-year-olds and taught that level at a school in Wisconsin.
What was it like being a teacher at Forest Bluff for five years?
Those years were formational for me, with Paula Lillard as my mentor. Each morning, I felt blessed to be able walk into a joyful, intellectually stimulating classroom and spend the day with such wonderful children. I have always admired the way the Montessori method is implemented at Forest Bluff, exactly the way Dr. Maria Montessori envisioned it. Even after I left to raise my three children, I kept in close touch with Paula Lillard, Paula Preschlack and the school community.
How did you become Head of School?
Paula Lillard called me in March 2020 and asked if I might be interested in applying for the position. I was honored and humbled that she would think of me, and now that my children were grown and my life circumstances had changed, I was thrilled to consider the opportunity. The head of the selection committee suggested a gradual transition into the role, so since August 2020, I have been coming down from Pewaukee once a week to learn from Paula Preschlack and to get to know the teachers and families of Forest Bluff. Paula is an incredibly rich resource with a generous spirit, and this was the perfect way to ease back into the community in which I began my career. When I walked back into the building after all these years, I felt I was coming home. I’m just as excited as I used to be walking in each morning. The parents and children already know my name, and I love welcoming them upon arrival each day. Do you plan any changes to the school? Forest Bluff prides itself on continuity of tradition. It’s important to me that we maintain those traditions. We emphasize grace and courtesy—how to look someone in the eye when speaking to them, how to care for others and the world in which we live. But things in the world are also different than they were 30 years ago. Though the use and accessibility of technology has changed, for example, we still encourage our families to spend time together outdoors and to read good literature, rather than relying so much on their devices. We acknowledge that this issue is not going away and that there are ways we can raise our children so that their developmental needs are met in the best way possible. Fortunately, Dr. Montessori recognized that children must learn to work through their differences peacefully and have gratitude for those who came before. These ideas of respect and compassion will never change at Forest Bluff School. What separates Forest Bluff graduates from others? Our alumni are remarkable human beings. They have taken a wide variety of career paths, but they all stand out from their peers. They have a level of self-awareness others may not, they are intellectually curious and they have a true understanding of collaboration. The students who graduate from Forest Bluff are not afraid of uncertainty and failure but see it as an opportunity to discover new ways of solving a puzzle. They are independent and responsible, and they care for others. How have you enjoyed Lake Forest since you moved?
I only moved here three weeks ago, but so far I absolutely love it! I was at the Forest Park Beach last night, and I found it to be idyllic. I am able to ride my bike easily to downtown Lake Forest and to school. I’ve brought friends down from Wisconsin to shop and sample the great restaurants here. Everyone in the city has been so warm and welcoming—thank you!