Using the Restroom: A Privilege—If You’re a Teacher

Educators seldom have enough time to do their business. What’s that doing to the state of learning?

Jeff Chiu / AP

It’s common knowledge that teachers today are stressed, that they feel underappreciated and disrespected, and disillusioned. It’s no wonder they’re ditching the classroom at such high rates—to the point where states from Indiana to Arizona to Kansas are dealing with teacher shortages. Meanwhile, the number of American students who go into teaching is steadily dropping.

A recent survey conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers Association asked educators about the quality of their worklife, and it got some pretty harrowing feedback. Just 15 percent of the 30,000 respondents, for example, strongly agreed that they’re enthusiastic about the profession. Compare that to the roughly 90 percent percent who strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about it when they started their career, and it’s clear that something has changed about schools that’s pushing them away. Roughly three in four respondents said they “often” feel stressed by their jobs.

The survey’s results were largely what one would expect. Among the “everyday stressors” in the workplace and classroom, the most-cited were time pressure and mandated curricula, respectively, for example.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway is somewhat buried in the summary report: Of the various everyday workplace stressors educators could check off, one of the most popular was “Lack of opportunity to use restroom.” In fact, a fourth of the respondents—which amounts, presumably, to 7,500 educators—cited the bathroom issue as an everyday stressor, putting it in third place only after time pressure and disciplinary issues. What’s more, roughly one in two teachers reported having inadequate bathroom breaks, while about the same ratio said they’re unable to use the breaks they do get.

The survey results should certainly be taken with some skepticism. As the second-largest education union in the country, the AFT clearly has a vested interest in advocating for better work conditions for educators, as does the Badass Teachers Association, a group that “was created to give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality through education.” The language used in the summary report wasn’t particularly neutral, suggesting that at least some of the 80 questions included in the survey, which was circulated via email and social media, may have been worded in a way that influenced certain responses. (For instance: “How often do you find your work stressful?”) And certain teachers—particularly women and those who had been treated for anxiety at some point in their careers—were more prone to reporting inadequate bathroom time.

Statistical nuance aside, however, what’s clear from the survey results is that when teachers do list the issues that stress them most, the bathroom issue comes up high on the list. That means one of the most pervasive strains on teachers’ lives at work has little to do (at least directly) with the problems that get the most attention in policy circles and the media—stuff like standardized testing, the onslaught of classroom tech, and pay. Maybe the bathroom issue is too primal to make it into policy discussions. Maybe teachers’ physical discomfort seems tangential when students are underperforming, schools are underfunded, and disadvantaged children are falling further and further behind. Or maybe those teachers are too selfless or too modest or too inured to put the issue on the public’s radar. A campaign to “Reclaim the Promise of Brown v. Board”? Now that’s noble. A campaign for more time to tinkle? Not so much.

But that doesn’t mean the bathroom-break problem isn’t one decision makers and education reformers should be overlooking (which they currently seem to be doing, given the apparent lack of research and dialogue on the issue). Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, mentioned the problem only in passing in her keynote speech at the union’s annual TEACH conference earlier this month: “We’ve fought for language in contracts that covers everything from class size to peer-assistance programs to making sure that when a teacher is sick, a substitute is called and those students aren’t just dumped into the class of the person who’s least likely to say ‘no’ to the principal,” she said. “We’ve even fought for time for bathroom breaks.”

Only some teachers contracts explicitly address bathroom breaks, and the policies are often pretty austere. Members of California’s ABC Federation of Teachers and Missouri’s AFT St. Louis, for example, can take one “physical relief break” every three hours or two 15-minute relief breaks during the day, respectively. There isn’t a straightforward federal law protecting workers’ restroom rights, and a number of lawsuits have been filed against companies, such as Nabisco, by employees alleging unjust bathroom policies.

It’s hard to deny the misery that a day without having much, if any, time to relieve oneself might cause—especially when compounded with the other stressors associated with teaching. And inadequate bathroom time can be particularly strenuous for pregnant teachers. Given that roughly three-fourths of teachers are females, and that close to half are under age 40, a significant percentage of classroom educators have likely been subject to that extra strain.

Teachers can easily end up compromising their health by avoiding hydration—important, of course, for keeping energized, focused, and headache-free—to cope with the limited restroom time. It’s not uncommon for teachers to discuss strategies on resisting the urge to go; it’s even the subject of various threads on Reddit and other online forums. “Do not drink too much,” wrote the Reddit user schaud2013 about a year ago in the thread “How do teachers find time to use the bathroom in the school day?” The user continued: “I was lucky this year to have prep 2nd hour, then lunch 2 hours later and then 3 hours of classes until the end of the day. If I do have to go, I hold it by focusing on something else and walking around class. That seems to help me.”

Another Reddit user, lemonshrk, commented that he or she is like a “well-trained puppy” during the school year. “You get used to the schedule,” the user, who self-identified as a high-school teacher, said, theorizing that the situation is probably different for teachers at other levels. After all, elementary-school teachers responding to the AFT survey were 26 percent less likely than their high-school counterparts to report having an adequate number of bathroom breaks, which makes sense considering the constant attention younger children need.

In another bathroom-break thread, this one on the forum “A to Z Teacher Stuff,” a substitute teacher recalled asking a colleague about restroom policies and emphasized that the inadequate time can amount to much more than an inconvenience:

She told me to call the office because teachers are not allowed to step out of their classrooms, not even to go into the hallway. In this case, to "keep an eye on" a neighboring class. She said that teachers may loose [sic] their license if they are caught doing this …

Anyhow, I have IBS [irritable bowel syndrome], and I will spare everyone the nasty details. I called the office, and asked for coverage for a bathroom break and the receptionist said that she couldn't find and administrator to cover for me because certified office staff cannot cover for certificated employees. To top it off she said, “We don't have extra people floating around for those things.”

Needless to say I waited another 45 minutes feeling nauseous and miserable and questioning whether teaching is really the profession for me.

In a response, a first-grade substitute teacher also pointed to potentially serious health consequences: “Regardless of where I sub I typically can only use the restroom during lunch (and sometimes not even then because I have duty or lunch detention). It’s definitely not healthy, but I don't drink any liquids before or during work.”

Chances are these Internet users aren’t healthcare professionals. And it’s nearly impossible to make conclusions about the health implications of inadequate restroom time given the limited scope of medical research on the topic. (Moreover, some research, though also limited, suggests that educators’ health concerns are overblown. One study found that, despite “the preconceived notion that teachers suffer from an excessively high rate of mental health problems,” signs of psychological distress were not found to be higher among teachers versus other adults.)

Still, a handful of studies do suggest that the issue should, at the very least, be getting more attention from a public-health perspective. It’s well-known that urinary tract infections are a common side effect of limiting either bathroom usage or hydration (often both). A 1997 International Urogynecology Journal study, “Thirst at work—an occupational hazard?,” appears to contain some of the only existing research specifically focused on the prevalence of UTIs among teachers. The study—which was a response to the growing number of lawsuits and “anecdotal reports by patients,” as well as a concern that “proscriptions against using the toilet during the working day may be contributing” to the prevalence of UTIs—offered compelling, though mixed, conclusions. Of the roughly 800 teachers surveyed, about a fourth said they “voided” (the fancy word for peed or pooped) never or only once daily, while another fourth said they did so four or more times a day; half of the respondents, on the other hand, said they “made a conscious effort” to drink less water during work hours to avoid having to go to the bathroom.

Although the researchers, a urogynecologist and a law professor, didn’t find an association between the number of bathroom visits and UTIs, they did find that, compared to women who drank adequate amounts of water at work, those who didn’t have enough to drink were at more than two times the risk of having a UTI. “If this association holds,” they wrote, “public policy must be changed to allow workers more adequate access to toilet facilities.”

Most conversations about school bathrooms these days focus on policies for students: The Internet is peppered with teachers exchanging tips, analyses of how much kids’ bathroom use should be regulated, news reports on lawsuits filed over draconian restrictions or transgender kids’ rights. One well-known children’s advocate wrote an article in 2001 targeted at kids reminding them that they’re entitled to use the restroom. “Using the bathroom is not a privilege,” she wrote. “It’s your right. YOUR right!” But what about teachers?

Ultimately, this seems to be one of the rare education problems whose solution is simple, free of cost, and, apolitical. As long as safeguards are put in place—asking a colleague to watch over a classroom, for example—ensuring teachers get the few extra minutes they need to do their business shouldn’t do much, if anything, to kids’ learning experience. In fact, it could even enhance it. It’s clear that uncomfortably full bladders (or y’know) are among the key issues contributing to teachers’ day-to-day stress—and that can surely take a toll on the quality of their instruction.

Part of teaching is being able to adapt and make sacrifices. As the University of Chicago professor Philip W. Jackson wrote in his book Life in Classrooms, “School is school, no matter where it happens.” Sometimes, however, it should matter: when teachers have to do their business, at the very least.