School founder Paula Lillard reflects on the guiding principles of Montessori education
By David AF Sweet
When Paula Lillard was living in Cincinnati raising four young children, friends gave her a biography of Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor who championed educational theories little known in the United States. Reading the book, Lillard was skeptical of Montessori’s methods.
“I thought it all sounded too ideal,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Kids aren’t like that.'”
Yet she volunteered to be an unpaid assistant for a new Montessori program for 3- to 5-year-olds at Cincinnati Country Day School. And what she witnessed amazed her.
“I had no idea they could behave as well as they behaved,” Lillard said. “I was fascinated by the teacher, a Jewish German World War II refugee named Hilda. It was simply amazing to see her recognize in every child what would help them form the necessary character traits within themselves. She was an incredible observer of children and always treated them with dignity and respect.
Today, Lillard—who founded Forest Bluff Montessori School in Lake Bluff in 1982 after completing his Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) training in Milwaukee—is the leading authority on Montessori education in the United States. United and is well known around the world. As she sat in a lawn chair one summer afternoon at her Lake Forest home with geese resting nearby, stables to her right and a pond in the distance, she shared her 60-mile journey years devoted to the adoption and dissemination of Montessori’s revolutionary vision of how children should be educated.
Traditionalists who believe in school desks and memorizing facts greet Montessori with disbelief. No grades, little homework, no sports teams? 9-year-olds in the classroom with 12-year-olds? Students who prepare lunch at home and bring it to school?
“It’s so deep, that’s one of the reasons people struggle with it so much,” Lillard said. “As a physician and scientist, Montessori observed children in depth. She created an environment that brought out the best in their behavior and intellect. We know they start with curiosity; you need an environment to encourage that.
In the classroom, children as young as 18 months old use equipment such as knives to cut vegetables. Math is embedded in their world instead of appearing as numbers on paper Teachers focus on students’ intellect and human spirit, not just their academic work. Seventh and eighth graders take trips — including one involving dog sledding in Minnesota — where they, rather than teachers, take care of food, travel and other arrangements before camping out for 10 cold days.
The result? Students develop important traits throughout life, including self-determination, focus, a love of learning, creativity, and confidence. When alumni return to Forest Bluff to share their stories with students and parents, they are poised and outspoken. A certain number become entrepreneurs.
“Choice is a foundation of Montessori education,” Lillard said. “They are responsible for themselves. It gives a strong idea of who they are.
Opened 40 years ago in a rented space in the now demolished East School in Lake Bluff, Forest Bluff has welcomed around fifteen children aged 3 and 4. It grew rapidly through word of mouth. Parents as far away as Barrington traveled to Lake Bluff to drop off their children.
“We never made an effort to consciously go out and look for people,” Lillard said. “My intention was to serve children and families who were interested in Montessori.”
In 1989 the school opened its own building just west of the Lake Bluff train station. As the school grew and the years passed, the biggest challenge came during the Great Recession of 2008.
“We had a few years then where we couldn’t balance our budget,” Lillard said. “I’ve always believed that you don’t spend the money you don’t have on a nonprofit, so we cut our spending.”
Lillard – who graduated from Smith College with a degree in education – is still upset by a decision recommended by the AMI at the time, which has since been reversed; closure of one of the three primary classes for 3-6 year olds.
“I knew it was a mistake to load two classes,” she said.
Ironically for a school that hadn’t allowed students to use technology until the pandemic, Lillard said people are now learning about the school primarily through the internet, often through its website. Parents at the school of 150 students come from more than two dozen countries, including Argentina, India and Ukraine.
At 90, Lillard still attends staff meetings and converses with teachers, many of whom have enormous longevity. Haley Tate, for example, is in her 39e teaching year from 18 months to 3 years. Two of Lillard’s daughters, Lynn Jessen and Paula Preschlack – who has written a book on Montessori education due out next year – have taught at the school, along with her granddaughter, Margaret Kelly (all three remain heavily involved in the school since leaving the classroom). Lillard herself taught until the age of 74.
“Those are definitely my best years ever,” she said. “For a long time, I couldn’t talk about them because they made me sad.
“When you enter a Montessori environment, you leave the world behind. You are surrounded by the mystery of how human beings will react to their world. I never looked at the clock. How many people can say that?”
Unsung Gems columnist David Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich. He can be contacted at [email protected]