Design For: Student Privacy

A student raising their hand to request permission to use the bathroom or to get a drink of water is so common practice, most of us who teach haven’t thought to challenge it’s wisdom or utility.

I am lucky that I teach in a private international school, so challenging that wisdom should be easy. Except, it wasn’t. Well, it wasn’t until the challenge to that wisdom came knocking at my own door.

The not-so-private bathroom examples as design fails. via @DougCollinsUX

A seventh grade girl came to me as class was getting started and requested to go to the bathroom. Having just had a 10 minute break between classes, I told her no, maybe later. Seconds later, she seemed concerned with one, then two and finally 5 other girls around her at a table that isn’t where she normally sits as I try to start class. It became clear that this was no ordinary request to go to the bathroom and before I could correct my mistake, a friend of hers repeats her request, “Mr. Ellis, she needs to go to the bathroom right away!” Immediately I tell the friend, “she may go, in fact, the whole group may go.”

The group departed not for the bathroom but for the nurse’s office and as you might expect, the request was due to her first period. My classroom and school’s policy to; request to leave a classroom, to state what your business is and to gain the permission from the teacher all combined to make it so this seventh grader without a good option and without privacy. It was clear that I would need to design in a solution.

not a good solution to my problem from zazzle.com

The Problem: Students don’t have enough of their expected privacy within my classroom. Also, a power dynamic is in play regarding when students can get a drink of water and when they can use the bathroom. These are middle school students with growing needs for privacy but are still working their way into becoming a responsible adult.

Brainstorming: Old school bathroom passes assigned each quarter, old school logbook, redesign the school schedule for longer breaks, or just let students go to out of the class when they want.

Prototyping: I have now asked students to tell me where they are going and not ask me. “Mr. Ellis, may I go to the bathroom?” now becomes, “Mr. Ellis, I am going to the bathroom.”

Feedback: Changing this policy hasn’t added any new problems and the students receive my trust in a very real way to them – I have granted them a modest amount of privacy that is absolutely appropriate for their age, their development and specifically within our school community.


This is just a single way in which I can design expected privacy into the daily business of being a classroom teacher. My assessments, daily work, notes, projects, trips can all be managed in a way that meets the needs of my student’s desire for reasonable privacy.

I once had a colleague who would each login to an online program each morning before school that displayed who did their homework and who didn’t. At an all-grade assembly held each morning, that teacher would announce who didn’t do their homework to the whole group and expect that they spend lunch with her. What a way to start the day, right? Yet, as students began my class each day, I would come around and mark their homework completion that was viable to the whole group. Not only did I publicly note student homework completion but I did it in a way that created shame, just as my colleague had. The only difference? My breaking of student expected privacy was accepted practice and on a smaller scale.

I clearly needed to redesign how students showed their homework to me. The work isn’t formally graded and is checked to note completion as a life skill. My design change was to have students bring me their last homework while that day’s work was getting started, something that happens at the end of each class period. Students come up to me on their own, when they are ready. That does mean some work is getting completed right then and there, but that is a good thing. Students who I’ve not had come up to me, I will check with before they depart and I do follow up with students slipping behind, but the narrative has shifted. Now students approach me and they do so proudly. Others have time to get up to speed, no judgments and their expected privacy is in tact.

Going along with this idea, I don’t want students to march into my class and to fail an assessment on the date I’ve picked. So now, within reason, students are free to tell me that they won’t take the test on test day because they are not ready. My school is already on standards based grading and retakes are in full effect. I have not created any new problems and the embarrassment of not being ready only to march into class and fail the assessment is gone. The student will then meet with me to learn more and to take the assessment at a different time. Such a change in how we trust one another as partners in learning.

Designing for student privacy takes first a careful evaluation of your practices and done so with as much empathy as we can bring to see the student’s perspective. I can empathize with not having homework to turn in, while I am only able to sympathize with what it takes to deal with a menstrual cycle. Follow your own combination of empathy and careful observation to detect flaws in your classroom experience for students and consider design solutions to provide the privacy, dignity and respect that all of your students deserve.

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