Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.28.13Blogging the Un-Bloggable: School Bathrooms


This is definitely my first blog post about bathrooms. Perhaps it is yours as well, but actually I think they are worthy of some discussion.  At least school bathrooms are.  And for two reasons:

1)      Former NYC parks commissioner Henry Stern once observed that bathrooms become the sites of society’s least palatable behavior.  They awaken something in people that causes them to do things that they would otherwise never do.  Suffice it to say, a school’s culture is only as strong as its weakest link, and that weak link is often the bathroom. Bad thinking and acting starts or coalesces there and spreads.  It’s a critical space to win over to make a school safe orderly and positive.  But of course it’s often the last place people want to manage.

2)      A recent visit to an Uncommon School I very much admire reminded me that managing bathrooms isn’t just about managing kids’ bathrooms, nor is it only about prevention.  Bathrooms can be foundries of reflection.

Surely if you are not now intrigued, there is no help for you. I will press on.

Dan Ceaser, who founded KIPP Tech Valley up here in Albany and is now the Middle School Director at Kentucky Country Day, was one of the most insightful principals I came across in seeing a school through a kid’s eyes.  He recognized that kids feared and loathed the bathroom and that fearing and loathing the bathroom, often rightfully, is both inhumane—one shouldn’t ever have to feel fear in a school; one shouldn’t waste energy and focus on finding a way to execute one’s biological needs—and dehumanizing—a decrepit bathroom says: “This is who we think you are.”

So Dan attacked the bathrooms with positive energy.  He pre-emptively made them warm and attractive.  He put up posters on the walls; there were little rugs in front of the doors and the sinks and there was a soap dispenser—shaped like a football in the boys—on a small table.  There were potted plants!  The “this is who we think you are” message was inverted.  And when kids had something to play for they respected their bathrooms.  But Dan insisted they work to keep them. He explained the “why” behind the nice bathrooms and then told them it was theirs to keep through proper bathroom behavior.  If said proper behavior didn’t occur—of COURSE there were breaches; of course kids tested it–he took the nice stuff away… usually piecemeal and incrementally with clear steps to ‘make sure we earn it back quickly.”  And always, even with so many positives in place, there was accountability.  You signed a log when you used it with the time in and out.  If something went wrong there was a finite list of leads, but usually just being accountable to sign in prevented negative behavior in the bathroom.   Most of the best schools I know manage and socialize bathroom behavior.  We certainly copied and adapted and innovated with ideas like these in every way we could think of.  It seems like a waste of time in the short run to add bathrooms to your management docket but when you find yourself NOT investigating graffiti and suspicious “code yellow” events, it makes you think otherwise. And again, not worrying about the bathroom should just be a part of a kid’s experience good school.

All of which brings me to Katie Yezzi’s school, Troy Prep Elementary.  Even a short visit to Katie’s school invariably teaches me something because Katie, like Dan, is deeply attentive to and insightful about the physical environment. And a quick drop-in this week was typical.  She, it turns out, was thinking about bathrooms too, but in this case for her staff.

First of all I just want to say what is never said here—that the adults too should not have to feel fear and loathing in order to use the bathroom in the workplace. And while no one really talks about it, adults often have that fear and loathing.  Civilized, private, tidy bathrooms for the grown-ups are not a reliable assumption in many schools.  Sorry if I am oversharing but there are teachers and administrators who do what I did as middle school student—they try to “hold it” all day because the bathrooms are not a place of respite. Neither kids nor adults should have to feel that at school.  So first of all, Katie’s bathrooms–for kids and adults–are a place of respite—clean and tidy and private and stocked with useful fresh-smelling things and never out of soap.  But I noticed on my very short visit the other day that Katie and her incomparable Director of Operations, Bill Sherman have made their staff bathroom a place of reflection.  Pictures of smiling Troy Prep kids are festooned around the mirror.   Your face reflected amidst their beautiful smiling countenances is the last thing you see before you leave.  And above those bright smiling faces is a brief two word reminder: “Bright Face.”  It refers to the students but also to the teachers… it’s a reminder to smile and show your students a bright and positive and loving face when you re-enter the hallway.  It is beautiful, inspiring and productive.  There are other sayings up in the bathroom: “Narrate the Positive,” “Calm is Powerful,” etc. These offer positive reminders about the little things to do to make the day more pleasant and productive for teacher and student alike and make one’s brief stay in the bathroom a moment for calm and peaceful reflection.  It’s the opposite of dehumanizing—it’s inspiring and centering and restorative.  If you’ve come for respite, the solutions, as well as those beautiful faces in the mirror, are there.

Ok, I did it. I wrote a whole blog post about bathrooms.

Does anyone else dare to share thoughts on the topic?

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9 Responses to “Blogging the Un-Bloggable: School Bathrooms”

  1. March 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    I love that you wrote a blog about this issue! I am not sure I have given it enough thought, but it is fascinating. Thanks for attacking an issue we should be talking about within our schools.

  2. Stephanie Nelson
    March 28, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Three cheer for Potty Power! Thanks for daring to deal with the unmentionable. And, I can attest to your review of the Troy Prep staff bathroom – it is awesome!

  3. March 28, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    I loved this post! It made me think about how we once had an elementary school student who would go and play in the bathrooms. She would spend a half hour or more in there and we would have to get her out. At a high school I worked at, they’d previously had a student who lit fires in the bathrooms. Did you know that if you light the toilet paper just right, you can get the whole plastic dispenser to burn? I didn’t either.

    When I was a high school student, our custodians would randomly lock one of the bathrooms (we never knew which one) if they didn’t want to have to clean them all. As if using the bathroom during a 5-minute passing period on a sprawling, portable-extended California campus wasn’t difficult enough, we then had to guess which bathroom or bathrooms would be open that day. My mom was on the school board and brought it to the attention of the administration, who assured her that all of the bathrooms were open. She started showing up at the school randomly and asking an administrator to please check on the bathrooms with her. They were livid when they discovered, in the presence of a school board member, that what the custodians had been telling them wasn’t true. Mom also wanted the girl’s bathrooms built with extra stalls, because she pointed out that 5 bathroom stalls in a girl’s bathroom is NOT the equivalent of 5 urinals in the boy’s bathroom, despite what architects (who then tended to be male) may tell you. Of course, girls still had the same passing period time, so a lot of girls just waited to get to class and asked for a pass to avoid the bathroom lines. Mom felt this was another subtle form of gender inequity if girls had to miss more class because of bathroom access issues. And then there was the time the architects designed a new gym and made the custodial supplies closet only accessible from the boy’s locker room. She asked, “So you’re assuming that we’ll always hire male custodians,” and they said, “We’ll just take these plans away and work on them a bit more. . .” The other school board members started calling her “The Latrine Queen.”

    Anyway, this post made me think about all the ways that bathrooms are used and abused, by students, staff, and even by administrations. It’s something we don’t think about much, but we should.

  4. Doug_Lemov
    March 29, 2013 at 1:25 am

    Thanks for all the comments and insights re the bathroom. Hope folks’ll keep em coming. I should have noted that really when all is said and done the reason to manage the bathroom–to wrestle it into civility–is student achievement. I KNOW that sounds crazy but mental capacity spent figuring out how to survive or exploit the bathrooms is mental capacity not spent on teaching or learning.

    • April 8, 2013 at 1:44 am

      @Doug_Lemov:disqus , I think you sell yourself short: the connection between bathrooms and learning isn’t crazy at all who to anyone who has worked in schools. The key is that a clean and wholesome bathroom is an indicator that (all) students are respectful, even in the bathroom. It normalizes positive behaviors in a very powerful way, since nearly all students see the bathroom at some point. It also has added impact since bathrooms are often broken windows, and students use bathrooms to take a sample of the environment of the school. When a new student walks into a clean, fresh bathroom, the student learns (whether they can articulate it or not) that students are respectful, people care about me, and this place is different. That’s a very high level of impact for a fairly small investment.

  5. March 31, 2013 at 3:26 am

    Reminds me of an interesting article from 2009: “Whenever I evaluate a school, my first stop is the boys’ bathroom because, without an unflushed urinal of doubt, it is every school’s least common denominator. ”

  6. April 7, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    I’m all for making bathrooms–both those of students and staff–more orderly, safe, and welcoming. We’ve tried different policies at my school with mixed results at best. How does the sign-in, sign-out system work at KIPP Tech Valley? How do you insure that kids actually sign in and out when using the restroom? Honors system? Is there a hall monitor or school aide who keeps track of the book?

    • Christi Carpenter
      July 24, 2013 at 11:43 pm

      We keep our sign-in and key in the main office and it is monitored by our wonderful clerk. Definitely keeps the bathrooms in better shape. The downside is that it can result in a loooong wait for the bathroom for kids…

  7. fearcutsdeeper
    May 26, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    I’ve know at least two teachers that have scheduled group bathroom breaks. Both teachers (from two different schools) set it up identically. Children each have a on level book and are expected to read quietly in the hall while they wait for peers to go to the bathroom. At the end of the bathroom break, the books are collected into a bin if they not going to back to the classroom.

    I think it’s a great system for both reducing time wasted and monitoring correct bathroom behavior.

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