Category Archives: Education

The Bathroom Issue

This debate is one that often transcends any single plane of argument.  One minute it’s about logistics, the next it’s about ethics.  The situation starts as a simple hypothetical: A student asks to use the restroom in the middle of your class, at a time when you’ve just started getting your class into gear.  What do you do?

Online, I’ve noticed that there are several lines drawn here.  Parents almost unanimously cry foul at a teacher’s refusal, citing human rights for why their angels should be allowed to use the restroom whenever they feel the need, and that furthermore, they shouldn’t feel pressured to put themselves out in any way upon feeling said urge – the teacher needs to just let them go and suck it up, they say.

Students feel the same way – “We’re young adults, you can’t tell us what to do.  Just go, no matter what the teacher says.”

Teachers are divided: Half say “Don’t let them go.”  The other half says “Go, you don’t want to get sued, especially if admin won’t back you up.”  Sad truth.

I will first tell you my bathroom policy, followed by my responses to these arguments.

I tell my students that my class is like a car ride, and that they need to go before they get in the car.  If they ask to use the restroom, I use Classcraft to take 10HP from them with a preset called “Go on your own time,” or I say “No.” until they ask again.  I do tell them that they are at my mercy, as in my class I am the Morning and Evening Star.

Is this a power trip?  No.  I will explain.

First of all, this argument needs to be put into context so that I don’t have a swarm of Common Sense Media parents clamoring for my execution.  I teach high school.  Young adults, they’re called.  Not elementary students.  My policy is based heavily on this factor.  The three skills that I focus on in my class are the same that I would want my own kids to develop as young adults, and they’re the same traits that pushed me into adulthood and maturity.  Students find that mastering these three things is the only thing they have to do to be sure they will do well in my class – the rest happens by itself, usually.

Phan’s Trinity of Maturity
  1. Managing Time
  2. Managing Priorities
  3. Managing Communication

At my school, students are given a passing period to use the restroom, etc. and of course breaks and lunch.  If students don’t use the restroom during this time, then they are not managing their time, and they are certainly not prioritizing their own well-being.

What about a medical condition or an emergency?

The contingency I do allow is reliant on the 3rd skill.  If you have a medical condition or an emergency, you need to adequately and effectively communicate it.  That’s just survival.

My child shouldn’t have to humiliate themselves in front of the class to use the restroom.

Then certainly it’s their job – or at the very least the PARENT’S job if the student is determined to be helpless – to tell the teacher ahead of time and work out some kind of signal system if they have a condition… I mean, it’s not like effectively conveying need in an emergency situation in a quick and efficient manner is a life skill or anything.

Communication is the major skill here, because I’m not a robot!  If you can convey the gravity of the situation, you probably have nothing to worry about.  It’s about knowing why the system is in place.  The system says nobody can go, but the system is not in place to stop people with full bladders.  It’s to facilitate learning.

If you need to pee and you’re not just trying to escape class because you’re bored, then you’ll have no worries, because you’ll have no problem finishing the sentence you’re on before going.  You won’t have any qualms about handing over your phone while you’re gone either, right?  Since you’ll be right back and it’s not like you were going to call your friends or tweet for 45 minutes and come back when the bell rings?

It’s messed up to take points away for having to use the bathroom in class!

If you really need to go, you can’t control it, right? It’s like having bad weather that cancels your practice.  If you take the hit, then work extra hard to make up for the hit!  That’s being responsible.  If you accidentally break something, you still own up.  If you have to go to the bathroom, it’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s not your classmates’ fault, so obviously it comes down to you to deal with the issue – and sometimes that means taking the hit.  You know what?  Life will go on.  I don’t know what the aversion is to losing points for things that aren’t anyone else’s problem.  That’s life.  If I’m paid by the hour for a job and an asteroid strikes my car and keeps me from going to work, I’m not going to insist I get paid anyway.  No, I take the hit.  If your dog eats your homework, you take the hit and then in the future you take better care of your homework – and your dog.

And as for the student insistence that they have the freedom to just “go, no matter what the teacher says?”  That’s true, you have that freedom.  A teacher won’t bodily stop you.  I can technically walk out of the classroom whenever I want, too.

You see, freedom comes only to those who accept the consequences.  If a teacher forbids you to go, and you need to go, then by all means go.  Then take the referral the teacher writes you, serve the detention, whine about it to your mom, and sleep soundly knowing you were in the right.  Then use your knowledge of your teacher’s jerk attitude and the system to avoid having to go in their class anymore.

As for getting sued… well, honestly, no teacher can do anything if they fear being sued.  My advice for that is usually just to be smart, be transparent, and always do your very best to do what’s right in your heart, and the world will have a hard time condemning you.

Yeah, sometimes I’m more naive than the students.  I don’t really see how anyone who isn’t an idealist in some fashion or another can become a teacher, though.

2017 Fourth Annual Northern California Instructional Technology Summer Summit #mouthful


NOTE: I do talk about this event in the latest episode of the Podcast.  Go listen!  Phan’s Homework is what it’s called, and you can find it on Google Play, iTunes, or… here, on this site.

So I just got back from the first date of Phan Summer Tour 2017.  Basically, I was asked by Classcraft to go to the Fourth Annual North –

No.  I’m going to call it the Redding Edtech Summit from now on.  That other name is awful and long.

Anyway, if one is part of the Classcraft Ambassador program, Classcraft will occasionally send one of you to the big Tech Summits to represent them and spread the word about how awesome a tool it is.  This one was kind of a special case, but I needn’t bore you with specifics.  In any case, I was there to represent Classcraft and to network.

When I showed up to that DMV-looking building they call an airport (it legit looks like there’s a parking lot outside that just happens to have airplanes in it once in a while), there was a dude there with a sign with my name on it.  Yeah, you’re jealous.

So we went straight from the airport to the actual event.  It was very obvious that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore*, because there were more than 3 kinds of trees.  Yep, San Jose pretty much has 3 trees:

  1. A maple looking tree
  2. A palm tree
  3. Whatever tree you’re allergic to

*That figure of speech doesn’t quite work when it comes to travel in the US, does it?  Stay with me, folks, I’m still in California.

Ryan Johnson (@mrjbusteacher)  was there.  Man, let me tell you, that fool does not play around.  What I mean by that is not that he is not a playful guy (he is).  What I mean is that he does nothing halfway.  This guy was 100% involved in the planning of this event, down to the individual vendor.  He was an outspoken advocate for Edtech in his community, and obviously a mover and shaker.  He also was the main reason I didn’t need an Über, because he either drove me around himself or arranged it with other people.  I actually did very little waiting for transportation.

Anyway, the Summit was at Parsons Junior High, and not only was I teaching a session on Classcraft, but I had also been shanghaied at the last second by Ryan to do the closing keynote.  I was well-received, I think.  You can be the judge: Ryan also took a video of my presentation, which cuts out right as the speech ends so that you have to take my word for it that people actually clapped.  Here is the video:

Although my table was the jankiest one there and held the least amount of swag (the pirate definition, not the weird millenial definition), Classcraft obviously had a rep at this place.  People had heard of it, and if they hadn’t, they were quickly wowed within minutes of a demonstration.  What’s not to like?  The artwork of Classcraft is awesome.  If I were to have a fantasy portrait of myself done, I’d track down their artist.  Look at this:




There were other vendors too, including but probably not limited to:

  • Texthelp
  • Keyboarding Without Tears
  • Peardeck
  • PowerSchool

So all in all, a great trip.  Tons of networking, and I got to promote a product that I’m really happy about.  I was very impressed also at all of the uses for tech talked about in Redding.  I’m from the Silicon Valley, but I had to admit that Redding’s technology game was surprisingly strong.  If you want to hear more about this, listen to my Podcast!

#GAFESummit in Modesto next!

Yelling at the Ocean

During a staff collaboration, our department head showed us a TED talk by Eduardo Briceño that discussed the reason why people’s skills at their profession tended to plateau in skill despite large amounts of time being invested into their improvement.  Specifically, he said that the average person has two zones:

  • In the Learning Zone, people are relaxed and situations are very low-stakes.  The emphasis is on becoming better.
  • In the Performance Zone, the emphasis is on execution and evaluation, and the stakes are higher.

Briceño then stated that the problem is that most people almost always place themselves in the Performance Zone, and are seldom in the Learning Zone.  This is apparently impressed upon us at a young age: we are taught that school is evaluative through grades, and are often punished or docked for mistakes, enforcing the principle that mistakes are bad.  Furthermore, because the Performance Zone is one of judgment, not of improvement, the mistakes made are not used to improve any skills.

The first thing that came to mind when Briceño discussed a low-stakes situation Learning Zone was my time playing soccer.  More than any teacher making me spell and write repeatedly, my time playing soccer – especially with my father – taught me the importance of practice.

When I started playing soccer, I was typically awful.  However, about two or three years into playing the game, my skill level spiked suddenly.  This was not just due to maturity, or finally understanding the sport.  My kicks were powerful for my age, and I was able to aim the ball precisely – almost with x, y, and z-axis precision.  I was able to trap almost any ball flying toward me at my feet with a technique involving my shin.  These skills made me a valuable asset to my team, despite my lack of precise ball control as a dribbler.

Demosthenes projecting his voice over the ocean.

As I reflect now, Briceño’s words color my experience with a new significance.  His example of the Learning Zone was made clearer by his reference to the orator Demosthenes, who practiced posture by suspending a sword blade above his shoulder, who spoke against the ocean on the beach to perfect his projection, and who put rocks in his mouth to master enunciation.  Individual skills were perfected and honed in ways that far surpassed the difficulty of what he was practicing for – but the situations were low stakes.  Nobody would know if he failed during these exercises but himself.

Soccer practice ran similarly.  No matter how much we begged for a scrimmage (essentially a simulation of an actual game), both my coach and my father would instead focus on drills, which were little tasks that perfected individual skills in preparation for the game.

“There’s no point in a scrimmage if you have no skill.” said my dad to me once in the car.  Essentially, using a soccer game to practice for a soccer game was limited in usefulness because it was a performance zone.  Drills were specialized in practice: We practiced dribbling.  We did sprints and liners to practice changing direction.  We did the Give-and-Go.  We juggled the ball with our feet.

When I reflect now, I realize that the things I spent the most time practicing with my dad (mostly because we couldn’t really run around) were my kick (shooting the ball with my father as the goaltender – he was better than any elementary kid would be) and my trap (my dad would always expect me to trap the ball – no self-respecting soccer player would do otherwise if a trap was possible.)


Soccer practice was low-stakes but higher in difficulty.  If I missed a goal (you know, because my goaltender was a full-grown adult), I just had to try again.  Every time I missed a trap, I just had to run and get the ball.  There was no punishment. I practiced for way more hours than I ever played in a game.  I realize now that my father kept me in the Learning Zone.  Every time I tried to shoot a ball past my father, I was Demosthenes yelling at the ocean.  The drills that I performed faithfully improved my skills.  Accordingly, the drills that I performed less diligently – like running laps, dribbling, and ball-handling – did little to help me.

My skill plateaued eventually – and again, that’s easy to explain.  As I got older, I was shorter than a lot of my teammates.  When they did better than I did in practice, I was disheartened, instead of focusing on myself.  I practiced less with my father, and soon I only heard his feedback from watching my games.  Without realizing it, I had transformed my practice time into a Performance Zone.

Many parents make this same mistake with their child’s education.  Low grades are punished, average performance ignored, with only high performance receiving acknowledgment. – implicitly teaching that mistakes are bad.  If mistakes are bad, then everything is high-stakes, which makes school a Performance Zone, not a Learning Zone.

In addition, the social imperative mirrors this as well. For some reason, teenagers care what their peers think, to the point that their worst nightmare is to be caught in a vulnerable position.  The fear of becoming a social pariah as a consequence is about as high as stakes get, with teens tossing and dodging labels like “snitch” and “slut” in their day-to-day lives.  If you worry about what other people think, how can you be safe enough to make mistakes?

I’ve talked before about how we need to be uncomfortable.  In order to do that and get to sword-suspending and ocean-yelling, we need to identify our Performance Zones and our Learning Zones and treat them as such.  This is also why hobbies are a good idea: you can use the skills they give you in their assorted Learning Zones with your Performance Zone.  For example, rapping has been a low-stakes way of building confidence when speaking and demanding attention, which is something crucial when teaching teenagers.  It also expands my vocabulary and refines my pronunciation.  Blogging helps me with my writing skills and with expressing my thoughts in words, which is definitely an imperative for an ELA professional.

The concept of the Learning Zone is the rebuttal we’ve been looking for to the tired claim that you “don’t use what you learn in school anyway.”  Yes, you do!  Of course, problems aren’t like they were in school.  A school is a Learning Zone.  School tasks are drills.  School is yelling at the ocean.  Real life replaces the ocean with real people and raises the stakes – because now the waves can hear you or destroy you, and your words matter.