By Tom Keating
When your family takes a trip, you probably tour museums, hike beautiful trails or check out famous monuments. When I travel, I visit school bathrooms. As an advocate of cleaner school restrooms, I’m always looking to learn how other countries operate in this realm.
This post is an exchange between me — coordinator of Project CLEAN in Decatur, Georgia — and Thilo Panzerbieter, head of the GTO. That’s the German Toilet Organization, in case you didn’t know.
The GTO invited Project CLEAN to assist in its first Toiletized World projects in 2009 and again invited me to help Berlin schools in January 2012.
In this post, I ask and Thilo answers. The next post will be the reverse.
Tom: Do younger kids in Berlin come from home to elementary school prepared to handle restroom issues well?
Thilo: A lot of schools assume that students should be taught at home how to behave in a school restroom. This is only partially true. Many underestimate the specifics of the situation.
Students and adults go separate ways in school restrooms. Hence, students – for the first time in their lives – are in a situation where they are using public space without adult supervision. Many of them end up challenging the boundaries of authority in this environment – very much like small children challenge their parents’ authority at home. If parents and school staff are more sensitive to this, students can be led from “soap to citizenship.”
Tom: When students in middle school are taken on an inspection of their school restrooms, during a “toilet walk,” (Schulklobegehung), what kid of reaction do these adolescents have?
Thilo: At first they all find it absurd: They laugh, giggle and horseplay. When they realize that we are serious about wanting to understand their situation, they begin to answer questions sincerely. As we go through the exercises, which are part of what we call, “Toiletized World” (Klobalisierte Welt), more and more students begin to feel that they are not alone in their desire for better school restrooms. We thereby create group dynamics that help to empower the students.
Through an open discussion with the school administration and “Hausmeister” (house technician/maintenance personnel), the students understand who to see if there is a problem. If these adults care, we have a chance of improving the situation.
Tom: What is the restroom related work of the Hausmeister? How does a working relationship among students and the Hausmeister handle such issues as graffiti, vandalism, and mischievous actions by students disrespecting restrooms?
Thilo: The Hausmeister is a school’s grounds keeper and house technician in one. In a lot of schools he actually lives in the building. He locks and unlocks doors, does small repairs and maintenance work. It is not his task to clean the restrooms – external cleaning personnel does this. But a lot of times he is the one who deals with clogged sinks and toilet bowls.
He is the one who removes graffiti or repairs stall doors. In Germany, the motivation of this person and his relationship to the students is essential in solving school restroom issues. It states a lot about a school, whether the students know the Hausmeister’s name or not.
A good relationship between the students and maintenance staff creates respect for that person’s work and thereby also for the state of the restrooms.
Tom: What might Berlin middle and high school students advise American youth as to how to better grasp the world-wide humanitarian and cooperative development aspects of sanitation issues?
Thilo: Most Berlin students are also not aware of this issue, unless they have gone through our “Toiletized World” project. Our concept teaches the students about the international work of the German Toilet Organization and similar aid organizations working abroad.
By giving the students an insight into the living conditions of people in Africa and Asia, they learn that the privilege of a toilet cannot be taken for granted. About 40 percent of the world’s population currently lives without access to sanitation facilities.
This unhygienic situation causes over 4,000 child deaths under the age of five per day. Sick children cannot go to school and girls often times drop out of school when they reach the menstrual age, due to a lack of privacy.
Understanding these facts helps German students and their teachers see their own situation in a different light: How would my life be without water, soap, stall walls or a toilet? I am sure that our approach would also work in the United States – I would love to try it.
To contact Thilo Panzerbieter, email him at email@example.com. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.