Book Review: The Teacher Liberation Handbook: How to Leave School and Create a Place Where You and Young People Can Thrive by Joel Hammon
This is a detailed, honest, and well-written account of a teacher who left his conventional school job to start a learning center for teenagers and how he, and others he knows, keep them running successfully. Inspired by the learning center North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland, MA, Joel opened the Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) in 2010. A former public high school teacher, Joel writes:
When you work in traditional schools, the oftentimes bizarre relationship you are required to have with young people doesn’t seem so weird. In fact, it can feel normal and natural. It’s only when you view it from the outside and compare it with the relationships you have with other people in your daily life that the nature of school relationships becomes apparent. For example, the idea that I should be in control of when a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old human can go to the bathroom, eat, get a drink, chew gum, or wear a hat is just weird. The idea that young people need to ask my permission to take care of their most basic needs only seems normal and natural in a system that relies, at its core, on coercion of varying degrees. Taken outside the context of school, controlling young people in this way is easily seen for what it is.
Some of the most touching moments at PLC occur on new members’ first days when they kindly and meekly ask me if they can go to the bathroom or if they can eat lunch and I get to be the person to let them know that they never need to ask permission to pee or eat a banana ever again.
Hammon is quite thoughtful and precise in his descriptions about what it takes to start, operate, and grow a learning center. He also outlines the essential steps, forms, and process for filing to be a nonprofit educational organization, which he feels offers greater benefits to the school than other business structures you can use for a learning center.
But, regardless of how you run the center as a business I think the most valuable aspects of this book are how Hammon distinguishes a learning center from a school. For instance:
We close PLC on Wednesdays for practical and philosophical reasons. Practically, this is when the staff meets and has meetings with families or performs outreach to the local community. Philosophically, we want to structurally make the point to our members and their families that we are not a school and that they should be working toward making lives for themselves. So they should take Wednesdays to volunteer, work on projects, have jobs, or even sleep. Whatever it is, we want our teen members to start developing skills to manage their own lives and time.
. . . I wanted relationships that started with trust and respect and had no hidden agendas like getting them to learn something they might not be particularly interested to know. This type of relationship thrives at self-directed learning centers. When I was teaching, I certainly felt that I treated my stu¬dents with respect and trust. Almost all the teachers I worked with in my eleven years of teaching in school did the same. It is not a case of good versus bad teachers or personalities; it is a systemic issue in compulsory schools. No matter how respectful and trusting I am as an individual, the only reason my students are sitting in my class in the first place is that our current system as a whole does not trust that families will do what is in the best interest of their children and therefore compels them to be in school. The bottom line for me is that by working in a self-directed learning center, I don’t have to do anything to young people that I feel is harmful, that I feel is at odds with my sense of what is right or wrong, or that I feel is not in their best interest. That was certainly not the case when I was a teacher.>
There is growing interest in learning centers, which are largely focused on teenagers, among alternative educators because they are easier to get off the ground than a full-fledged school. Interestingly, Hammon claims the best target audience for a learning center is not existing homeschooling families, but “children in school who will leave and are probably considering homeschooling for the first time. It can be very tempting to try to attract existing homeschoolers as your member base, but it is a problem in disguise. While it seems like an easy and good thing to do, and in many ways it is, you should never lose focus of the fact that you are primarily looking to help kids leave the system.” The reasons are that current homeschoolers already have plans in place and tend use a learning center on a part-time basis:
The part-time nature of their membership can make it hard to build community. Second, they typically will not be interested in paying you for a full-time membership, which will make finances a challenge if you primarily work with existing homeschoolers. Finally, many times homeschoolers will look at PLC for specific content areas that they do not cover in the their homeschooling. While PLC has a lot of great classes and tutors, being a content provider is not what we do best; neither is it our main focus.
That comment about making it hard to build community with part-time members is also a reason many schools have declined to allow part-time participation in their offerings to homeschoolers, too. It indicates a need for yet another type of place for teenagers and their families who want part-time participation.
Hammon’s book is full of hard-won insights and ideas, and I like how he reaches out to like-minded people who are running, or thinking about running, a learning center for their input. One of them, Catherine Gobron, a cofounder of Lighthouse, in Holy Oak, MA, makes a very important point about patience and the value of building genuine relationships and collaborations in your local community for the benefit of all:
. . . the number one most useful and important thing we have done so far has been our focus on building a strong base of support and connections in our new community. We have lots and lots of collaborations going with other nonprofits and other businesses—win-wins all over town. Nearly all of our students have come to us as recommendations from these many partners. We could not possibly do this in isolation. Both Josiah and I each have several meetings per week with existing and new connections. It’s a huge part of our jobs, and I think this focus is the driver behind our tentative success. It’s seldom clear what will come from these connections at first. Things unfold over time. Keep a long view.
Hammon learns from his work at PLC that “It is not my life or education. It is theirs. My role is to support it but not control it.” This book will show you how to support a teen’s education and life outside of the conventional wisdom of “Make them go to school no matter how much they complain!” Even if you never use a learning center you will get some valuable information about how to live and learn with your teenagers. The appendices of the book are filled with useful information about the financials for a learning center, homeschooling research, and a sample college admission’s transcript for a student at PLC.