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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Confidence tricks – how teachers can talk about sex ed topics

How can teachers become more confident in talking openly about relationships and sex education (RSE) topics? Here Leah Jewett, co-author of the card game Sex Ed on the Cards, problem-solves 3 common classroom challenges…

It’s not just parents who need upskilling on how to approach relationships and sex education (RSE) topics – often teachers also need to acquire the vocabulary, tools and confidence to talk openly with children and young people. They need to learn how to start the conversation. As with parents, teachers generally didn’t have families that talked openly at home. As with parents, teachers can experience pushback from digital natives for whom managing exposure to porn, sexting and online pressures comes with the territory. As with parents, teachers often have to get past their own barriers to talking openly such as embarrassment, shame or a perceived need to know all the facts.

Furthermore, teachers who grew up or were trained under the shadow of Section 28 – when from 1988 to 2003 the “promotion of homosexuality” was illegal – the mind shift required to deliver good RSE shouldn’t be underestimated, as Dougie Boyd, director of education at the charity Brook, pointed out during January’s Westminster Education Forum conference on RSE, adding: “In 18 years as a secondary-school teacher I never once mentioned gay issues or being gay. For many teachers, being comfortable talking about sexuality will take a huge amount of unravelling.”

Luckily the times when teachers would stand and deliver at the front of a classroom are changing. Child-centred educational approaches see young people both reverse-mentoring their teachers and educating their peers, which means that the sometimes complex job of conveying sex-ed information doesn’t now rest entirely with teachers. By breaking the ice with the game Sex Ed on the Cards they can let their students do the talking.

Unlike health education, sex ed is not an exact science and there are no easy answers. But there are strategies for surmounting common classroom challenges…

1. What if I can’t answer someone’s question?

A teacher isn’t a walking Wikipedia. Your admitting “I don’t know” gives young people permission also not to know. You could reply: “Great question – I’ll investigate and circle back to that next time”; you could role-model media-literacy skills by saying: “Let’s search that up” then consult a reliable resource such as Brook or Scarleteen on the spot; you could use the room and ask: “What does everybody else think?” – and gauge students’ levels of understanding as an informal needs assessment.

2. What if it’s awkward and nobody speaks up?

Keep in mind that your captive student audience has a desire and need for RSE. Even though in RSE lessons some kids might go on the offensive, giggle or want to hide, schools are actually young people’s preferred choice for learning about sex and relationships, according to the Sex Education Forum. As health teacher Kim Cook points out in an Outspoken Sex Ed blog post about her time in secondary-school classrooms: “All that the kids wanted to talk about was sex – so if you can link even learning about the respiratory system to sex, they will listen.”

Change tack if you’re met by silence, and find a new way for students to contribute. Playing Sex Ed on the Cards can animate students by giving them something physical to do and participating in smaller groups can bring quieter students out of their shell. Not all young people engage in the same way, and the three modes of play – Competition, Collaboration, Conversation – as well as the three kinds of cards – Debate, Question and Challenge – provoke discussion in different ways.

3. What if my personal life becomes the focus?

Intrusive questions might be meant to rile you up, wrongfoot you or get a laugh, but just as young people shouldn’t share anything personal about themselves in class, you shouldn’t either. Say: “Personal questions are off limits” and remind them of the ground rules set out in Sex Ed on the Cards (aka ROCK – Respect others; Openness and opting out; Confidentiality; Kindness).

It’s vital to create a safe space. Playing a game with hypothetical scenarios is a classic distancing technique – a way for students to enter into conversations that are anonymous, confidential and not about them.

If someone asks you: “Do you like sex?”, deflect the question by flipping your answer: “Let’s reframe that. Why do people like sex?”

As with parents, teachers can negotiate difficult sex-ed terrain by practising saying tricky words out loud, comparing notes with peers and just forging ahead. The more we all brave talking about sex-ed topics, the more natural it becomes.

A shorter version of this article appeared on the Routledge website on 23 March 2021 under the title RSE With Confidence: Let Your Students Do The Talking. For more on the game, see How To Modernise Relationships And Sex Education by co-author Sophie Manning. To find out how sex educator Jonny Hunt suggests problem-solving these exact same challenges at home, see Confidence Tricks – How Parents Can Talk About Sex Ed Topics

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