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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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