No More Permission To Pee
By Chad A. Donohue
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
I’ve been thinking about this common question, asked so often by children in schools all across the nation. Certainly, it makes sense for very young students to ask for permission to use the restroom. It isn’t using the restroom that is an issue, it is being out of the classroom. I get that. Teachers need to know where their little ones are at all times.
But at what point should students be able to stop asking for permission to go? Middle school seems the perfect proving ground for such an experiment. As students transition from elementary to high school, teachers have an opportunity to practice the GRC approach (gradual release of control). Restroom privileges are a good place to start.
I start by teaching the procedure for going to the restroom. (Wait, that didn’t come out right!) (Whoa, pardon the pun!)
Deep breath. Regroup.
I start by teaching the procedure for exiting the room in order to use the restroom. Near the door, there hangs a sign-out/sign-in sheet on a clipboard. Taped to the sheet is a pen attached to a string. Above the sheet is a piece of construction paper covered with small sticky note strips. Each sticky note strip has my stamped initials. These slips become the disposable hall passes kids take with them. Upon returning to the classroom, they promptly recycle the slips. (I gave up on the permanent hall pass years ago. A friend visiting my classroom once looked at my hall pass—a plastic ice scraper—hanging near the door and said, “Middle schoolers have been taking that thing to the bathroom with them for years, and you still have it here?”)
Then, the procedure. There is always the possibility of a “right-now, rapid-response, get-out-of-my-way!” emergency. I understand that. I tell my students I haven’t ever actually seen one, but I realize it is possible.
Barring an all-out emergency, here’s my policy for restroom visits:
- Choose an appropriate time.
- Check the sign-out sheet to make sure nobody else is currently signed out.
- Sign out (date, name, time, destination i.e., RR, or restroom).
- Grab a sticky note and write the time on it.
- Go immediately to your destination, and come right back.
- Sign back in by writing the time.
- Return quietly to your seat or workspace.
I then explain that as long as the procedure is not abused, it will remain the classroom policy. “As 7th graders,” I say, “you are mature enough to monitor your personal needs in this area. I am not required to ask for permission to use the restroom during staff meetings, and if you can handle it responsibly, you should not be required to either. I want to treat you like young adults. I want you to be comfortable in this class. We talk a lot nowadays about hydration, and I realize that this means more frequent trips to the bathroom. I don’t want to create a difficult situation for you. If you are being responsible, I cannot think of any reason why I should prevent you from using the restroom.”
This approach also eliminates the potential embarrassment of having to ask in front of others. Middle school kids are changing, physically and emotionally, and the need to use the restroom can be for a wide range of reasons. Interrupting class to ask permission can be both degrading and disruptive. Also, a blanket policy requiring verbal permission might be culturally insensitive, depending on the child. Finally, requesting permission to pee can be excruciatingly difficult for introverts.
And yes, many of us remember the terrible scene in grade school, a solitary child sitting at his or her desk, head down and crying, a puddle of urine on the floor. I never want to be responsible for that.
As teachers, we want to be cognizant of a few things:
- First, be sure to monitor the sign-in/sign-out sheet so that students are filling it out completely.
- Watch for patterns, especially if you are concerned about a specific student. (Are they leaving at the same time daily? Maybe it is time to meet quietly with the student in between classes.) Also, it’s a good idea to file the sheets in case you need to go back and look.
- Watch for any academic impact. Is the student making poor choices about when to leave? Are they missing important content? This warrants a discussion as well.
I know there are systems in place where students are allowed a set number of restroom passes per quarter, or issued a tardy if they really need to go, but many of these things feel arbitrary and unnecessary. They are, yet again, examples of policies we have long since been exposed to, yet have spent little time unpacking from an equity-centered perspective.
Chad Donohue is a middle school English teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches university courses in composition and public speaking.