February 14, 2018

Joel Hammon Advocates Self-Directed Education To Improve the Lives of Teachers and Students

LIBERATING TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: Joel Hammon, seen here with his student Sam Allen, left his high school teaching job eight years ago and co-founded the Princeton Learning Cooperative, not a school but a self-directed learning community where kids and teachers are “in charge of their learning and their lives.”

By Donald Gilpin

What do you do if you’re a teacher who doesn’t like school?

Nine years ago, Joel Hammon was an unhappy high school history teacher. He’d started out with great idealism and “a tremendous sense of optimism about how to make the world a better place,” as he explained in his recent Ted Talk on YouTube.

He still loved working with young people, but hated teaching in the system. “If you’re a teacher who doesn’t like school, what do you do?” he asked himself. “There is a systemic issue in the way we have chosen to teach students,” he said. “I came to feel a little bit like a prison guard, making kids who didn’t want to be there in the first place do things they didn’t want to do—that’s not the reason I went into teaching.”

At that point he heard about North Star, a self-directed learning center for teens in Massachusetts, and found the answer to his question of what to do. “Since that day I have dedicated my life to making self-directed education an option for as many students as possible,” he said.

Hammon and a colleague, Paul Scutt, founded the nonprofit Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) in 2010, starting out in a room at the Arts Council of Princeton with just $4,000 in the budget and six students. They moved in 2012 to the large basement of the All Saints’ Church, where they have nine distinct learning areas, 30 students ages 12 to 18, and three full-time teachers.

“Not every kid would choose to do this, but it should absolutely be an option in every community,” Hammon said. He noted that he, as a high school student who was heavily involved in athletics, would not have chosen this route, and he added that his wife, a high school biology teacher who loves her job, “would hate to do what I do.”

He continued, “It’s like preferences for different flavors of ice cream. A 9-5 job with a boss who tells you what to do suits some people really well. There are other people who hate that—and want to be their own boss. These are the entrepreneurs who might start their own businesses. PLC is analogous to the entrepreneurial mindset.”

Autonomy, Hammon said, is the factor that makes the biggest difference for teachers and students at PLC. “We’ve changed the ‘why,’” he said. “They’re not here to earn credits or meet requirements set by the district or the state. There is no external thing to chase here. We don’t require kids to do anything. They have to decide who they are, what they want, where they want to go.”

Describing the traditional high school where he taught before 2010, Hammon said, “Every year I taught at least a dozen students who would have benefited from self-directed education. Their lives would have improved overnight from being involved with PLC. Being in control of your time and what you do makes a huge difference for a lot of kids.”

Hammon discussed the relatively simple process for students to enroll in PLC. New Jersey homeschooling laws are among the least restrictive in the country, he said, and the child has usually left the school system by the time of the initial meeting between PLC and the family.

“This is not controversial,” he said. “There are millions of kids who homeschool, and most of them go to college.” He re-emphasized, “We are not anti-school. Plenty of kids thrive at traditional schools. But there are also students for whom that way of learning is not optimal.”

Pointing out that leaving school does not close any options, Hammon noted that PLC graduates go on to two-year colleges, four-year colleges, the work force, gap years, or business opportunities. “There’s always a way to get to where you want to go,” he added.

The central relationships at PLC are established in mentor meetings, when students meet individually with a staff member each week. “Those mentoring meetings could include what are you interested in, where do you see yourself going, and what do you want to be involved in?” Hannon said, and out of these sessions the students develop their schedules, which are likely to include classes at PLC four days a week, as well as additional programs, projects, possible internships, tutoring sessions, and other activities linking students to resources in the community.

Seventeen-year-old Sam Allen from Pennington described how he “was struggling in traditional public high school, wasn’t performing well, and was getting low marks. My parents tried homeschooling, then we came here.”

He continued, “For the first couple of months I wasn’t doing much here. I was sitting on the couch, listening to music and sleeping. Then I figured out that I can’t really make a career out of that, so I asked my mentor to help me and she said ‘what are your goals?’ ‘What do you want to do?’ And she laid out all the things I needed to do to go to college. So I started taking English and math and things like that, and I thought this was not too bad.”

He continued, “It was one-on-one and that works for me. I was starting to do all my homework, and taking the tests, and beyond that I was getting more involved in PLC.”

Besides being a PLC ambassador and leading tours for visitors, Allen has participated in bike races and 10K runs under Hammon’s guidance. He also has an internship with Legacy Arts International, a music and community service business, and he’s teaching a PLC class in music appreciation and analysis.

“I think my personality—I don’t like getting told what to do,” Allen said. I like to create my own goals. After I found my goals it got easier for me to move through the tedious tasks. I don’t like doing math, but I do it anyway because I know I want to go to college at Virginia State University. If I’d found PLC in middle school that would have been great. It would have saved me and my parents a lot of pain because I wasn’t performing in school at all, and they were pulling their hair out.”

Stating that his life as an educator “is immeasurably better” at PLC, Hammon philosophized, “humans thrive under certain fundamental conditions. They need to feel safe emotionally and physically. They need positive relationships with people around them. They need a significant amount of autonomy and control. And they need to believe that what they are doing is meaningful.”

Hammon, who lives in Langhorne, Pa., with his wife, their 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, talked about his plans and goals for the future. “Giving kids and adults another way that is really going to improve their lives immediately is really compelling to me. Often people are shocked by the idea—it’s like I’m talking from another planet, but the self-directed education center should be a normal routine thing. I guarantee there are at least three teachers and 30 kids in every community in the country who would benefit from self-directed learning. The end goal for me is to look across a map of the United States and see thousands of these centers thriving.”