It’s half term and so, of course, there has to be a polarised twitter row. I’m as bad as anyone for getting drawn into these. But the matter of toilets has been raging for days now. What is to be done?
Opinions about whether or not children should be allowed to go to the toilet seem to centre around the notion of intent and responsibility. They are intending to disrupt my lesson or avoid learning – or, they should have gone at break time so are being irresponsible.
There’s no doubt at all that some children use ‘going to the loo’ to get out of class. I’ve seen teachers make wild stabs in the dark that they account for 50%, 75% and 95% of escapees though I suspect that the real figure is much lower. Maybe the work is too hard and their minds are too full. Maybe it is true, as one claimed that they want to go and talk on their mobile phones and vape for 10 minutes. Maybe it is the case, as another claimed, that the reason boys need the toilet during class is because they’re too busy “stuffing their faces” at break time. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the attitudes underpinning these assumptions or the barely concealed contempt for the children in their care.
The evidence for the lack of genuine ‘need’ is offered in this solution:-
“I just say if they go to the toilet, they’ll have to make up the time at break or lunch. This stops 50/75/95% of them.”
I dare say it does. It also means they don’t go to the loo for another break time and pass the problem on to another teacher. I remember desperately hanging on for break many times at school (both as a pupil and teacher). In neither case of physical discomfort was I very good at concentrating so I might as well have gone. I dare say it also contributed to the lifetime of unrinary tract infections I’ve had as an adult which miraculously stopped when I stopped teaching. I’ve seen girls sit, jiggling, waiting, desperately hoping that the blood they can feel between their thighs is not seeping through the back of their skirts. I’ve seen children wet themselves. I’ve seen a girl, five minutes from the end of a class stand crying as diarrhoea swept down her legs. I witnessed all of this as a pupil and sadly, I’ve witnessed it observing lessons. I’ve picked my own child up from school, stinking from the poo in his pants that he had sat in for two and a half hours. Every single one of those kids is one of the 50/75/95% that prove the rule they don’t really ‘need’ to go.
I’ve had male adults tell me in the past two days that they can tell the girls who are on their periods by looking at them. I’ve had some claim that most only want to go to use their phones without seeming to understand that you could ask them to leave their phones behind. I’ve had many claim that 11 and 12 year old boys are simply too lazy to go to the loo at break times, when they themselves, it would seem, are too lazy to read up on the impact of puberty on the bladder control of 11-12 year old boys, some of whom start to wet their beds at this stage of life.
I’ve had people tell me that it’s fine to go if you have a medical card. But how does that work? No-one is carrying a medical card in the case of the early onset of a period. How many 11-12 year old boys have even really noticed that they seem to be needing the loo more often and more urgently than usual? How many of them have been explicitly told that this can be part of puberty? How many are taught to fully empty when they go to the loo, rather than rush off either to play, or because they are embarrassed about peeing in front of others? How many children find busy toilets so intimidating that they’d rather get into trouble in lesson times for the benefit of a quiet, private space?
We don’t know. There could be 5%, 25%, 50%…I’m not going to make wild guesses. But they exist.
I would argue that in our role as teachers and safeguarders of children, our first duty is to do no harm. In my experience, the following exchanges seem to have worked. They start with the principle, on my part, that the need to use the toilet is a basic physiological need. It does not require a medical card. It also starts with the knowledge that having access to toilets when needed is a basic human right – the UN right to sanitation. It also, takes as read that some children will take the piss. Just as some adults will. So. No-one leaves ‘willy-nilly’ – though I have seen well functioning classrooms around the world where children seem to slip in and out of class to use the loo without disrupting learning. But this is England. Trust is in short supply.
I’m in full flow. It would probably, in all honesty, be better for the child to slip out, but they raise their hands or approach me.
“Can I please go to the toilet?”
“Is it urgent or can you wait until I’ve just finished explaining this.”
Either – “I can wait” – in which case – “thanks – pop out when I give you the nod. Quick as you can though!”
Or “I can’t.” – in which case – “ok – off you go. Quick as you can!”
There may have been some cases (Yr 9. Child A. 2011 springs to mind) where this has not gone well. The caretaker was not happy. Ironically Child A had a medical card. But in almost a quarter of a century of teaching, that’s the only incident that I can point to where I can honestly say letting a child out of class was a mistake. With hindsight, I think I was happy to send him off to give me a break, but that’s another story…
Otherwise, hand on heart, I cannot say it has impacted on lessons much. And since I ‘left’ full time teaching to teach on the road across the world, what I’ve noticed is that this is a peculiarly British, secondary school obsession. In most of the other settings I’ve worked in – primary or international – there has not been this endemic lack of trust in children or an obsession with their toilet habits.
Others claim different experience. Maybe they work in tougher schools with serial vapers and phone addicts. Nevertheless we still have to ask the question of what right do we have to interfere with basic physiological needs? Should the actions of a few dictate rules for all? And I wonder. Does a lack of trust actually build rebellion? Are children (or indeed, adults) who feel that they are not given their basic rights or who feel that they live in an oppressive system of high surveillance and negative judgement, more likely to become self fulfilling prophecies? I don’t know. But I would say, we really need to get a grip. I’d even say that if children are lying and climbing the walls to get out of your classroom, you might need to rethink your lesson plan. (Takes cover).