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December 1, 2015

Principal Connection / What Does Your Restroom Say About Your School?

School Culture
Principal Connection / What Does Your Restroom Say About Your School?- thumbnail
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We should focus on students' restrooms," the principal said, "because lots of problems emerge there, and sometimes they're not considered safe places." Her comment was met by many nods of agreement. "Restrooms are an important part of school culture," someone responded, and this also elicited quite a bit of agreement. "OK," said our leader, the dean of education at a local university, "it's decided. We'll look at restrooms."
It was a Monday evening, and I was attending a monthly meeting of school administrators talking about how we can improve our schools. We met at different venues, and this time we were at a huge public high school. There were about 20 of us, principals and assistant principals from public, parochial, private, elementary, and secondary schools. Our task that evening was to determine a focus for the next few meetings. We went around the room and offered ideas, and the initial topics—increasing student achievement, energizing teachers, engaging parents, building school culture, and reducing discipline problems—each elicited positive reactions. But when restrooms were mentioned, the room was galvanized. Clearly, the principal's comment had struck a nerve!
"When you think about it," another administrator said, "kids are unsupervised most of the time in the restroom."
"Yes," replied another, "virtually every other minute they're in an adult's purview, but not in the restroom."
"Believe me, I know that," chimed an assistant principal whose responsibilities included discipline, "because I wind up dealing with the aftermath." Someone said it didn't help that restrooms were rarely attractive and often not clean.
"Let's visit the restrooms here," said the dean, and we divided into groups and visited the boys' and girls' restrooms on each floor. It was evening, so no students were present. When we reconvened, we all expressed surprise and disappointment. Whereas the school's halls and our classroom meeting space were clean and neat, that was not the case for the restrooms. Granted, the school had not yet been cleaned from the day's use, but each restroom had rusted pipes, walls with peeling paint, and doors to toilet stalls that were unhinged or would not lock. Some had cracked mirrors. Restroom maintenance appeared to be low on the priority list.
It dawned on me that unlike every other space in the school, restrooms aren't owned by anyone. Teachers own their classrooms, so those spaces are adorned with signs and posters and samples of kids' work, and a teacher's name is often on the door. The halls feature signs, mottos, and banners. Even if an adult isn't present in the halls, the halls are public, and school leaders want that public space to look good. But the restrooms are often bare and unpleasant to be in. One person asked. "Would we tolerate these conditions in the restrooms we use?" There was a lot of negative head-shaking; no, we would not.
"What does the condition of restrooms say to our students?" the dean asked. I said that my school had posters on the walls in our restrooms and that the adults and students use the same restrooms. A pledge about appropriate restroom behavior signed by all of the students in nearby classrooms hangs in the restroom at one end of the building. But after this visit, I knew we needed to do more.
The next day, when I returned to my school, I convened a group of teachers and shared my experience. We visited our school's restrooms, and although they seemed OK—they did not need paint, there was no rust, and the posters were attractive—we agreed that we could make the spaces more appealing. Student artwork would be better than posters, and it should periodically be changed so that every student felt a connection with the space. It wouldn't cost much to paint with accent colors above the wall molding, and we should add hooks for coats or purses inside the stalls. A teacher suggested that we put maps on walls or a globe on a table in the restroom. What about giving ownership of particular restrooms to specific classrooms or grades? How might behavior in a restroom change if students chose the color of paint and helped decorate it?
"Can we do something about the lighting?" asked our art teacher. Unlike the rest of the school, our restrooms still had rectangular fluorescent lights from the 1970s that provided harsh illumination.
"Can we use this space to help students learn about conservation?" asked another teacher. "What if we installed energy-conserving facilities and monitored their impact for our kids to see?" She suggested energy-efficient LED lighting, air hand dryers, and water-conserving sinks and toilets. We've gone ahead and installed the air hand dryers and water-conserving sinks and toilets. We've also painted the walls with accent colors above the trim and will be installing some small wooden shelves.
We need to consider the statement that the appearance of our restrooms makes to our students and faculty. Perhaps improving the attractiveness of restroom spaces will improve student behavior in these areas and encourage better supervision (which is never as consistent as it should be). When was the last time you really looked at the restrooms in your school? How might improving their appearance have a positive impact on student behavior and faculty morale?

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