||Volume 25, Number 2, October 2012
Sexual health education: Is it the last frontier of social justice education?
By Myriam Dumont
I recently went through training to become a certified sexual health educator. Although I have finished the course component, I am still working on my practicum. Options for Sexual Health (OPT, formerly Planned Parenthood BC) is the only organization that offers certification for people who want to know how to teach sexual health education. The course has been running for about 10 years and each cohort usually has 12 to 15 participants.
I became interested in sexual health education when I realized in university that I was required to teach it, but I would not be trained to do so. This seemed odd to me, considering it is probably one of few topics that teachers have the most difficulty teaching. I began educating myself by taking workshops, and eventually decided to take the Sexual Health Education Certification (SHEC) program offered by OPT. In my SHEC cohort, I was the only teacher. Considering that the other participants were nurses, social workers, and support staff, I wondered how other teachers learn the tools to teach sexual health to their students and, more importantly, how are students getting the comprehensive sexual health education that the Ministry of Education mandates?
I’ve realized in my short time as a teacher in Vancouver that teachers were not taking on sexual health education. Most of the time they were asking a nurse or a privately hired sexual health educator to come into their classroom for one session. I see this as problematic on so many levels because:
- Students who receive one-off sessions are not receiving comprehensive sexual health education. This is the only subject matter we teach where it seems acceptable to do a lesson once and never revisit it. We would never teach long division by doing a 45-minute lesson and then assume the students learn everything about long division. I often wonder how much knowledge students gain from these single sessions.
- The BCTF has a strong policy against bringing in outside people to teach the curriculum that member teachers are supposed to be teaching. However, we often need to bring in a nurse or privately hired sexual health educator to teach that portion of the curriculum.
- The sexual health educators that we hire cost a lot of money! They will charge anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for a day in the classroom. Considering all the cuts that are happening in education throughout the province, it seems ridiculous to me to be spending thousands of dollars a year to hire people to do work that teachers are supposed to be doing and could be doing, with the right training.
- This work is mandated in the curriculum. Sexual Health Education PLOs are visible from Kindergarten to Grade 10 and the Ministry of Education expects us to teach it. This is no different than any other PLO that we are required to teach as professionals.
Some teachers say that sex ed is “different” from any other subject area. It is loaded with values and personal feelings, which often bring about unease and even shame. However, teachers need to realize that you don’t need to know everything to teach effective and comprehensive sex education. Like anything else, teachers require professional development and need to keep up-to-date with information, but that is no different than any other subject area. For example, in my first year of teaching, I did a unit on residential schools. This year, I once again did a unit of residential schools, but it looked quite different than it did the first year, because my materials and sources were different.
I often hear other teachers say, I do sex ed, but when I probe a bit deeper, it is apparent that what that teacher is actually doing is abuse prevention. It is so important that we do abuse prevention with students of all ages; however, this is not comprehensive sexual health education, and students should not be learning about their bodies for the first time in the context of abuse. This, I believe, is due to a lack of proper training. Teachers mean well, but by doing this, they may be doing harm without realizing it.
My sexual health education unit looks very different this year than it has looked in the past. I teach it once a week, usually on Tuesday. The students are making their own Puberty Book of information they are learning. When I don’t know the answers to their questions, we call the “sex sense line” together (1-800-sex-sense) and I model how to find good, reliable, up-to-date, and non-judgmental information. In one semester, we have covered the following topics:
- proper names for body parts
- the female/male reproductive systems
- changes in puberty
- different types of families
- stages of pregnancy
- HPV and how the vaccine works
- support systems (who to talk to and HOW to talk about puberty and sex)
- resources (where to go for reliable information)
It would be impossible to cover all these topics in a 45-minute session, especially since the students are asking so many questions during this time. We are constantly reviewing information that they have learned, in a fun and meaningful way.
There is lots of research that demonstrates the benefits of comprehensive sex education. Meg Hickling (the “grandmother” of sex ed) went into a prison to interview men who had sexually abused children and what she found was, amongst other things, that they targeted children who did not know the proper names of their body parts. They realized that children who did not know the science words for their genitals clearly would not be able to talk to adults about their bodies and what was, or was not, appropriate touching.
Research has also shown that comprehensive sexual health education in teenagers reduces undesirable outcomes, i.e., unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. If students are equipped with the tools they need to make decisions that are in line with their own values, they will know how to keep themselves safe.
Children might laugh or giggle once in a while, but my experiences have shown that most of them are curious and amazed at all the incredible things that our bodies are capable of doing. Yesterday, my students and I learned about the different stages of pregnancy. I watched them as they observed a video of what takes place in a mother-to-be’s uterus from weeks eight to thirty-eight. They watched in amazement while taking notes, and had many questions when we would pause the video. They were completely fascinated.
Students all over the province are missing out on crucial and necessary education that they are entitled to in the public education system. In my opinion, it is long overdue for the government to ensure that pre-service teachers are required to take a course on teaching sexual health education, and that certified teachers get the necessary professional development to help them with the current curriculum.
Myriam Dumont, Laura Second Elementary School, Vancouver. BCTF Committee for Action on Social Justice, LGBTQ Action Group