Reimagining the Hallway Pass

How might we improve student autonomy and in our classrooms by redesigning our hallway pass routines?

Photo of Dan Ryder

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Overview: (What’s this idea about)

Designing a student-centered hallway pass routine

Potential For Impact: (Why is this an idea that creates a culture of innovation?)

Creating a culture of Innovation needn’t start with an epic change! It can start with one small improvement that then ripples out, creating a domino-effect of new patterns that lead to more innovative and creative school cultures. With that,  my idea starts with a bathroom pass and scales into a mindset around encouraging student autonomy in classroom contexts where tradition typically puts teacher control at the center.  

Value Prop/Pitch: (How would you pitch this to other teachers in your school? Your principal? Etc)

How might one small change in tradition have a lasting impact on the quality of learning in the classroom and the extent to which classrooms have innovative cultures?  What if that one change was a catalyst for transforming our relationships between students and teachers in the building? By empowering students to manage their own needs around hallway passes, we build trust, minimize disruptions to flow, and enhance the focus on learning in our classrooms. And in so doing, we shift the dynamic from a culture of control to one where we identify attainable opportunities  for student autonomy and self-efficacy to further an innovative, self-directed learning culture.

The logic might look something like this:

Increase opportunities for student self-efficacy → Increased their feelings of autonomy within school → develop more innovative and creative learning cultures

How’d I get this idea off the ground?

For my first five years of teaching, every time we’d seem to get a sense of flow going in the classroom, whether I was giving instructions or students were engaged in small group or independent work, the universe ground to a halt.  

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

The nature of the interruption ranged from students waving their arms in wait to not doing anything further until I called upon them.  Seemingly innocuous, the bathroom routines -- raise hand, wait for being called upon, get permission, get handed a pass, sign out, do the business, sign in, hand over the pass -- were causing massive disruption to learning in my classroom, creating difficult management situations, and adding stress in places where there needn’t be any. With these challenges, it was hard for me to build a learning culture that encouraged innovative, creativity, and self-direction.

I had to develop a system that better aligned to my values in the classroom and reflected the culture of learning I wanted for my students.  Also, I needed a system that met their needs -- as well as our administrators --  immediately and efficiently.  And then - upon seeing a plastic orange shovel - I had an idea. (Inspiration can come from the strangest places!)

I’d seen one of my colleagues hand out a cinder block and chain as a pass.  This seemed a bit over the top, but a plastic shovel?  Silly.  Ridiculous.  Difficult to forget. Easily identified. Easy to see.  “The Shovel” was born.  I placed it on a shelf at the back of the room.

“If the shovel is there, you can just take it, sign out, and go.  If it is gone, don’t ask unless it’s an emergency.  And if it’s an emergency, don’t ask.  Just go.”

The dynamic changed immediately in the room. And it continued to evolve over time.  Students noticed it was hard to see the shovel on the shelf and took initiative to install a hook from which to hang it.  Several students stopped leaving the room as frequently as they felt embarrassed by the shovel.  This in turn led to more and more self-direction around coming and going and forced me to question many more of my behavior policies.  One small change in routine can have a ripple effect on others. Bathroom procedures are a catalyst and even a symbol for the extent to which schools embrace innovation and creativity in their cultures - for students and potentially even for teachers. Less control and more autonomy encourages everyone in the building to be more experimental and adaptive in their approach.

How  you can get started:

So what might you do to start the same kind of change in your school?  Identify opportunities for student autonomy and self-efficacy to optimize learning environment and create more room for innovation.


Adding action items to a post, including some metrics that can be easily recorded, helps to inspire action and give direction to the idea. Here are a couple of data-points to look out for to know if this change has been successful:

    How many students ask to go to the bathroom each day in your room? How does that number change after you’ve implemented the solution?

    To what extent do students feel they have control over their needs? To what extent do students feel they need to ask permission to do things that are positive and constructive rather than be told they should be doing those things?

    What do students say about the difficulty of using restrooms during class before the solution is implemented, and what do they say after? Invite them to share their own stories, either writing them out or even filming them. The stories needn’t be circulated anywhere but the classroom, and they can be used to inspire a quality conversation about the purpose behind the idea.

Materials to get this idea off the ground:

    Whacky hall pass objects for teachers

    One-pager on how this idea is a catalyst for positive change to present to a principal or admin (optional)

Next Steps: How to move forward on your own or with a small team. Keep these four points in mind when framing out your idea:

      Overview: (What’s this idea about)

      Potential For Impact: (Why is this an idea that creates a culture of innovation?)

      Value Prop/Pitch: (How would you pitch this to other teachers in your school? Your principal? Etc)

      How’d you get this idea off the ground?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Zeina Chalich

Simple idea with an epic message behind it! Bells, hands up and rigid routines of school can at times make schools feel like prisons for students (and teachers).
The desire to give students autonomy and confidence in managing their own behaviours is powerful. I shared this idea with a group of 11/12 year olds and here are their thoughts about this using a PMI.
P: autonomy, independence, doesn't disrupt the class, cool item that won't get lost and is a loud symbol for other teachers who might see you 'lurking' around the school and question what you are doing. It would be good for teachers to use this too!
M: symbol might be too big and embarrassing for some students to carry around, especially for students who might have a bladder problem and need to go all the time. What happens if there is an emergency - will the teacher know exactly which kids are missing. Do students still need to go to the bathroom in pairs? Is there a place to hang the shovel in the toilets or will it sit on the floor?
I: Cool idea. I like that a teacher is thinking creatively about making students be more in control of their actions at school. Could students use a name card on the wall pr something like this to identify them as out. Miss can you let us know how the ideas evolves after hearing us feedforward. This teacher sounds like he really cares about his student's voice and choice. I hope my high school teachers are like this too.

Photo of Dan Ryder

I think this is so fantastic this feedback and I'm super grateful to have some student voices from which to develop this thing further. I absolutely hear that concern about embarrassment AND one of the reasons for the shovel is as a deterrent for those who don't want to be seen walking the halls and roaming with it. 90% of kids on a mission don't fret about it. Also, added bonus, the rest of the building knows those kids are coming from my room which can be helpful in lots of circumstances.

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