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You Can Learn A Lot From the School Bathroom

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
© 2013

Want a quick view of a school's climate? Visit the bathroom.

I've been to a lot of schools. Big city, small town, rich neighborhood, scary neighborhood. And when you've seen a lot of schools, you've seen a lot of school bathrooms. I've learned that I can get a very good sense of school climate from just a quick visit to the bathroom. I'm not talking about the protected "faculty restroom" found off a corridor in the main office. I'm talking about the "boys" and "girls" bathrooms for student use in the hallways.

First, I like to look at the factors that are determined by the adult community of the school. It is interesting to note that while most of my visits are to high schools, the labels stenciled on the majority of high school bathroom doors read BOYS and GIRLS. Not MEN and WOMEN as we expect them to behave, but BOYS and GIRLS. I have seen a good deal of high schools that label them Men and Women, though whichever way it goes, it does give an initial indication of the overall level of expectation. (One school labeled them MEN and GIRLS....I've yet to figure out how to interpret that)

Then there is the issue of the the main door. Does one exist? Many of the schools built in the last 35 years, are designed with a maze type entrance that eliminates the need for a door. But some older schools, despite design, have simply removed the main door, presumably for security, (or to be fair, it may be due to handicap accessibility). But if there is a door, is a key required for admission?

Inside, are there individual stall doors? Mirrors? (real, or the unbreakable type that are similar to looking in a piece of aluminum foil?) Are there functioning sinks? Soap and towels and other necessary supplies? What about decor?
"What, decor?" you may ask. Yes, some school bathrooms do have decor.

Secondly, I like to look at the factors that are determined by the student community of the school. These are things like graffiti and what types of graffiti are on the walls and stalls. Also the general state of cleanliness in the bathroom. Are used paper products in their proper place or strewn about?

When trying to get a feel for school climate, bathrooms tell the truth about how students feel about their school. This is because they are the student equivalent to a faculty lounge...an oasis from "those other people in the school". While teachers value a faculty lounge as a place away from students, students view their bathroom as a haven from teachers. It's not that teaches are banned, it's just that for the most part, in most schools, teachers don't want to go into student bathrooms.

I personally, love to visit them. They tell so much.

I've learned -
Pride and student ownership of a school is not about the socioeconomic climate of the neighborhood. I've seen school bathrooms in elite high income areas as well as high poverty areas that resemble prison bathrooms. Keys required for entry, stall doors missing, floors filthy and littered with a myriad of dirty items. I've also seen school bathrooms in both areas which show student pride and indicate a true sense of community. I've seen schools where faculty and students both happily share the same facilities. I've seen bathrooms with student-facilitated decorations and artwork and school spirit.

What goes on in a school bathroom and what is allowed to go on in a school bathroom is all about trust. It's a reflection of the trust-building and emotional security that's occurring throughout the school between the adult and student members of that community. Respecting students and ensuring that they feel they are valuable members of the community with recognizable input, is step one in building a successful school, regardless of what is going on outside the walls.

The next time you want to get a glimpse into how your school is truly doing, visit the students' bathroom.


About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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