The Plight of the Automatic Paper Towel Dispenser

Has your art room been infected?

If it has, you know the symptoms:  the red flashing light, the incessant hand-flapping in front of the mechanical eye, the battery-operated whirr and infuriating delay as you wait for one small paper towel to eject from its slot.  This tiny paper towel piece will hardly put a dent in the river of brown-black sludge that is currently flowing off Table 2, so the process begins again as you flap your arms like a crazy chicken in order to get enough paper towels to clean it up.

Paper-TowelIf your art room is still unaffected, you need to celebrate!  Run around grabbing paper towels willy-nilly and wiping up spills instantly before they spread and splash and are tracked all around your room.  Grab a stack of paper towels and pass them out to prevent spills and let students wash their hands (and actually dry them) within a few minutes at the end of class.

If you can’t tell, I am not a fan of the automatic paper towel dispenser, at least not in the art room.  They are impractical and annoying, especially when they are installed improperly (I had two installed inches from the floor that went off whenever students walked by) and not refilled consistently (heaven forbid I be given a key to change the roll myself!)  On second thought, my custodian knows me better, I would just forgo the dispenser and use the roll like a wild animal.

Regardless of how much I loathe automated paper towel dispensers in the art room, many of us HAVE to figure out a way to make due.  And this is only one example of the special classroom management situations that go in to running an effective art room.  We worry about all the “regular” stuff too, and then some:

  • What do we do with the kid that eats gold crayons?
  • How do you clean paint off of teeth?  Out of ears?
  • How do you accurately number and use supplies so that your scissors are not stolen and used for sword-fighting demos at recess?

If you have questions or would like to fine-tune your classroom management techniques (including all the fun twists and turns that students throw our way in a moment’s notice) consider joining me in November for AOE’s Managing the Art Room class.  This class is a breath of fresh air for art teachers needing a place to vent, share ideas and learn from the experts in the field.  I promise laughs, camaraderie and best of all techniques that really work!


Let’s dish: What is your biggest classroom management nightmare?


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Heather Crockett

Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.



    Paper towel is SO essential. How funny Heather to call yourself a wild animal to use a roll without a dispenser! LOL.

  • Megan

    I just got a new art room with these! There are SOME pros…but I totally get it. My biggest annoyance at the moment is that they’re too close to the counter…the tiny towel gets wet when it touches unless you swipe it up immediately! GRR! :)

  • Elizabeth

    We still have the ones where the kids have to pull down the handle. That’s fine, except that it is too high on the wall at the back of the counter, so kids can’t really reach it! Sooo, I have the cleaners save all the end rolls which go on the tables, and yes the kids use them like “wild animals”. but, it helps with their independence, AND there is always one child who reels em in with, “save trees! don’t use that much!”

  • Vicky Siegel

    Only art teachers deal with all of these issues! :) I was lucky enough to escape the loud hand blower in the art room! Can you imagine trying to give clean up directions with that going off! Thank goodness for the custodian who advocated for me to NOT have it in the art room!

    • Oh geez! I have never had to have the hand blower. I can’t imagine. I thought squeaky stool legs squeaking across the floor were bad enough!

  • Laura Allan

    let’s start with – even if you get a towel out, they absorb about as well as a piece of notebook paper. Here is how I solved this annoyance …. sponges to wash, rags to dry. Paper towels here and there for other things. I tore up a bunch of old ratty bath towels from my house, hang them on the cabinet handles to dry. They aren’t pretty, but they get the job done! When they start to stand up by themselves, I bring them home and throw them in the laundry. My new issue is getting the kids to squeeze the sponge in the sink before they trot across the room creating a new mess. It is always something!

    • Love your practical approach! I worked with my custodian and he would bring me 8 clean washcloths each week (I had 8 tables). I used them dry for spills and pre-dampened to clean tables and wash hands in a pinch with lower levels. Every Friday, he picked up the dirty towels and left me 8 new ones and I, in turn, kept a pretty neat art room. A win-win for us both!

  • Laura Allan

    for kids who use too many towels – try this video …

    • I enjoyed that video and it ties in perfectly to this discussion, thanks Laura!

  • Ingrid

    I have a trifold dispenser… and the KEY! and the custodians have brought me a case of trifold towels. I take a stack, wet them, squeeze them out to a baby-wipe dampness, and pass them out to kids- ‘wipe your hands, then wipe your tables’ and it is a super fast clean up with no arguing at the sink.
    I would be devastated if I got a roll dispenser, let alone an automatic.

    • Ingrid

      I should say, I wet about a half a pack for a very painty room.

  • Jeanette

    The students who use the normal Tissues/ Kleenex to wipe up spills when i have a stack of old tea towels , towels and paper towels. And the other thing is the oil pastel quashed onto the floor. Now use Portfolio crayons as they are water-based.