Zen and the Art of Going to the Lavatory

January 13, 2008

“How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane and functional item. For you, the basis of an entire culture.”

Von Richthoven (Adrian Edmondson), Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989

Simple, insignificant things become complicated at tough schools. You are constantly supervising dozens of students who have no social or moral restraint when it comes to causing harm to others or thwarting the purposes of the school. Something as insignificant as allowing a student out of the classroom to go to the toilet becomes a potential threat to learning which has to be evaluated, dealt with and, more often than not, justified.

There are several reasons why teachers can’t just let students answer the call of nature:

  • There is often a problem of internal truancy. Students who should be in lessons stay in the corridors. Sometimes they play games or attempt to intimidate passers-by. Every so often they disrupt lessons by running in to classrooms or reaching in and switching off the lights. Often they write graffiti or look for things to break. Any student allowed out of lessons risks swelling their ranks.
  • There are students who will ask to go to the loo every single lesson. This is not an exaggeration. At my school students have to ask at an office for a key to let them into the toilets. One of the women working in the office reported seeing the same girl five times during the average school day. (And no the girl didn’t have a medical complaint other than a severe allergy to school work).
  • There are classes where up to half the students will ask to go to the loo. In some year groups asking to go to the toilet when they are presented with hard work has become an automatic response. Once one child has asked the many others will also ask. Sometimes many will have notes from their parents claiming a medical condition.
  • There is an ongoing problem of toilets being vandalised. I mentioned before that school toilets are unpleasant. Much of this is down to vandalism or actions that have been taken to prevent vandalism (like removing all soap or paper towels).

For these reasons most schools advise teachers to refuse to let students out except in emergencies or where they have a medical note. Sure enough, most requests can be refused without a problem, as the child never really needed to go. However, there are always going to be children have a genuine need who may be at risk of “an accident” or who will be unable to work unless they do go. Inevitably teachers end up with a set of rules and regulations of their own invention to govern who does or doesn’t go which they explain to their class. (By “teachers” I mean people who are actually trying to teach. There are people employed as teachers who will often let large groups of students out of their lessons for half an hour or more without really caring). My rules are as follows:

  • Students will wait until a part of the lesson of my choice. Partly this is so they don’t miss important explanations, but also students often lose interest in going after a few minutes.
  • Each student will only get out once in every half-term. This really cuts down traffic. Many students are embarrassed to ask or fear the corridor dwellers and so it is often just a small proportion of students who will ask without first seeing anybody else let out, so after the first couple of weeks you hardly have to let anybody out.
  • Only one student is allowed out of the room at a time for any reason. This is common sense but ignored surprisingly often. I make sure to apply it even if the student already out of the room is outside for another reason (like they walked out in a tantrum).
  • If there is a medical reason I expect to see a letter signed by the child’s form tutor and if it occurs more than once then I will report it to the child’s year head. Amazingly some medical complaints vanish when faced with this obstacle.
  • The child must have been working properly before they leave. It is telling that this sometimes works as a good incentive to get students learning.
  • Students are never allowed out in the first or last ten minutes of the lesson. This is when the largest number of students will be out and about in the corridor and when they are most likely to disrupt other lessons.

Now this is just an example of how teachers have to plan in order to function as teachers. Equally complex concerns and routines affect every aspect of classroom life from lending equipment to setting homework. This kind of intellectual development should be advertised as a reason to go into teaching. No wonder the Teacher Development Agency has adopted the slogan: “Use your head, teach”. Of course, the possibility exists that years of having to treat a trip to the loo like it was a potential crime against humanity has not made me use my head but has actually made me lose my mind. Perhaps the next time Jade asks if she can go to the toilet ten minutes after the end of break then I will use my head as something to bang on the wall until I pass out.

Updated 30/5/2018: I’ve just reblogged this post after several days of various trolls attacking teachers for daring to suggest that you can’t just let secondary school students out of class whenever they ask. I should add a few extra comments.

  1. I do not work at the school I referred to above. It is not my current school. Although, off the top of my head, the only school I recall working at that had a “let kids go when they like” policy was a girls grammar school with incredibly motivated and well-behaved students,
  2. What I describe is normal, not some harsh oppressive exception. I found well over 1000 other secondary teachers who don’t just let kids out whenever they ask
  3. Several people have made comments about it being rare for kids to pretend they need the loo. This misses one of the most basic facets of behaviour management. Teenagers conform to the behaviour they see from others. If you let one kid have unlimited loo breaks, with no good reason, you will soon find several others in the class want the same privilege.
  4. Anyone blaming the teacher for students wanting a break does not know teenagers, particularly teenagers in tough schools.
  5. Nobody is arguing for kids never being let out, even if they are going to soil themselves, or have a medical condition. All we are saying is that staying in the room is the normal expectation, and exceptions should be exceptional.


  1. I have pretty much the same rules as you, with one addition: any student who is late to the lesson will not be allowed out; though I’d guess that was just part of your general rules for any situation, and given you’re more experienced than me you probably have less trouble with students being late.

  2. No, I just work somewhere with such a chronic lateness problem that I can’t even keep track of lates without looking at the register. The “must have been working properly” rule generally excludes the late arrivers.

  3. Oops, i have just noticed your “My Dream School” posts. But if you would like to elaborate on a national scale then please do :)

  4. OldAndrew, A hypothetical:

    If you were in Ed Balls job, and had free reign to implement your ideas and policies in British schools – what would your ideas and policies be. Assume that that British children/students and society remain the same – but that in the realm of school policy you can choose what you consider ‘ideal’. It could include grammars, setting, discipline, vouchers etc.

  5. Well, my national policies would be:

    1) Nationalise the schools putting them under direct control of DCFS (which would be renamed the Department of Education). LAs would be limited to providing school buses and an advocay role in which they help parents access the system but don’t provide it.
    2) No more targets, just set minimum standards for academic performance.
    3) OFSTED to inspect behaviour and safety. Teaching and learning should be clear from results.
    4) A pay-scale that rewards academic qualifications and shortage subjects.
    5) An end to inclusion of badly behaved kids and provision of special schools, approved schools and borstals as required.
    5) Child support to be dependent on children attending school.
    6) An end to the multitude of pay streams. A single system of funding would pay for all schools. It would be based on pupil numbers and (in secondary) students prior academic performance (i.e. more money the more kids you have who have been excluded from elsewhere or with poor KS2 performance).

  6. Does point 1) include Independent schools? When schools are oversubscribed what criteria will be used to select pupils? Will pupils be obliged or encouraged to go to local schools or free to choose any school?

  7. […] Zen and the Art of Going to the Lavatory […]

  8. “Does point 1) include Independent schools?”


    “When schools are oversubscribed what criteria will be used to select pupils? Will pupils be obliged or encouraged to go to local schools or free to choose any school?”

    Keep the system as it is but point 6) should discourage schools from trying to cream off all the most able children.

  9. I had the 10 minute rule in my classroom also. Also, the students had 3 free breaks a quarter and after that the students may have a break but agree to write the 50 states and capitals. Sometimes they decide they do not need a break as bad as they thought they did.

  10. I have much the same problem with my primary class. There are 35 of them though and often just me to try and control them.

    I also found the hard way that I can’t walk them through school from the front. Some of my kids won’t come with the rest of the class to assembly or to pe if they think it’s more fun to lurk in the classroom or hide in the toilet. I have to walk at the back of the line (but this then creates problems in the the front of the line gets way ahead of everyone else while I deal with the same kids who won’t even get out of their seat without severe cajoling and threats). Thinking skills indeed!

  11. Reblogged this on Scenes From The Battleground and commented:

    There was a lot of controversy on Twitter this weekend after one troll who worked at an expensive private school overseas boasted that they let their students “go to the bathroom” whenever they wanted. A teacher at a state secondary ended up in a Twitter storm for pointing out why this is not allowed in their school. A lot of what followed was just the usual teacher-bashing and trolling you get on edutwitter from people who would never work in a tough school. But some non-teachers genuinely didn’t understand what the issue is. I said I’d write a post explaining, only to remember I wrote this one ten years ago. I’ll add some updated comments at the end, soon.

  12. Rare for kids to pretend they need to use the toilet? Some people do live in dream worlds! (I have twice taught in posh schools, and it was an issue there too).

    One trick is to ask for their phone if they are going to the toilet. That immediately halves the requests, because all they wanted was to check their messages anyway.

    If you keep it to the end of the period, then requests drop further, as the time collecting them after class prevents those students from leaving immediately, which is their general desire. It also means at the end of the period you have a recollection of who went, and you can record it without having to break your lesson.

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