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Building self-esteem in Queens

New York Teacher
Showing off the bathroom beautification at PS/IS 116
Johnathan Fickies

Showing off the bathroom beautification at PS/IS 116 are (from left) special education teacher Tatiana Walker, music teacher Kimberly Corona, art teacher Karen Hubela and Chapter Leader Leah Cromer.

In the spring of 2019, a few students at PS/IS 116 in Jamaica, Queens, approached art teacher Karen Hubela with a problem.

“The fifth-floor girls’ restroom was kind of abused,” Hubela says. “It was very institutional, not a pretty space for the girls.” Students sometimes threw paper on the floors or vandalized the stalls.

When Tatiana Walker, a special education teacher at the school, shared a post on Facebook during the summer about inspirational art in school bathrooms around the country, it sparked an enthusiastic reaction from fellow teachers.

“Our teachers saw it on Facebook and said, ‘We should do that for our school! I’ll help!’” says Chapter Leader Leah Cromer.

Those efforts earned PS/IS 116 an Above and Beyond Award on Teacher Union Day.

In the days before the school year began, Hubela headed a team that included Walker, music teacher Kimberly Corona and several students. They painted the bathroom stall doors with inspirational messages. “To be yourself in a world that is trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment,” reads one. Another advises visitors, “Let your smile change the world; don’t let the world change your smile.”

“We chose messages that would foster self-esteem to empower and inspire them,” says Walker.

Hubela also used black lacquer to refinish an old school desk to act as a showcase for donated bathroom products, like scented foaming soap and hand sanitizer.

“Girls at that age in middle school are confronted with so much, and we wanted to inspire them and show them that they’re loved and valued at our school by giving them a space that’s theirs,” Hubela says.

Students were thrilled with the makeover and have responded accordingly. The school has seen a substantial decrease in the number of bathroom vandalism incidents, the teachers said.

“Our janitor is amazed,” says Corona. “We made it a nice space, and they’re respecting that space.”

Beyond the aesthetic improvement, Hubela says the redesigned bathroom has also buoyed students’ “collective consciousness.” Several boys have formed a committee to lobby for similar improvements to the boys’ bathroom.

Hubela said the project has empowered PS/IS 116 students to effect change.

“It’s nice to be able to show the students with action that we can make a change in a place where they’re spending six hours a day,” she says. “We can say to them, ‘Look what your conversation started. Instead of just seeing the problem, look at the possibilities and solutions.’”

Related Topics: Awards & Honors