I've been talking to my students about sex - a lot. Students are very curious about sex and have very serious questions and concerns like, "What happens if humans don't have pubic hair?", "Why do people feel so ashamed and embarrassed when we talk about sex?", "Why do we have marriage?" and, my personal favourite, "What are the pros and cons of having a BF or GF?" It is rare to hear a question like, "What are the reproductive parts that a sperm must travel through in order to fertilize an egg?" and yet, that is what I am expected to teach and what students are expected to remember. To be fair, just talking about the pure mechanics of human reproduction makes my job and the student's lives a lot less uncomfortable. If we all just avoid the touchy-feel-y emotional stuff, we can probably just leave it to fate and the off-chance that students can be trusted to educate themselves and make good choices, right? In all seriousness though, if we expect people to know about consent, safe sex, and healthy relationships, then we need to talk about those things. Teachers have so much power and influence over their students that I think we owe it to them to have open and honest conversations about topics sex, sexual health, and relationships.
"Okay, Miss Biology Teacher," you might be asking, "what makes you so qualified to impart knowledge about sex, sexual health, and relationships to students?" Okay, I admit, my five years of post-secondary education did not prepare me for this. Sex-ed did not prepare me for this. Truth is, I'm improvising. I mean, I'm still trying to figure out a lot of this stuff for myself. What I do know is, I have been granted this incredible opportunity to start a dialogue with my students about a topic that's very real and extremely relevant to their lives. Yes, it's embarrassing, awkward, and hella uncomfortable to broach the topic of sex with a room full of hormonal teenagers. Do my students sometimes make inappropriate jokes or comments in class? Do they giggle uncontrollably whenever they use the word "ejaculation"? Are they expected to treat each other and themselves respectfully in the safe space we have created together? Are they just trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this world just like the rest of us? The answer to all those questions is, absolutely, yes.
The teenage years can be a strange and disorienting time, which is easy to forget when you're legally an adult. Teens do a lot of weird things and say a lot of things they don't mean. Coming from a person who's already gone through that stage of life and lives to tell the tale, those teenage years don't seem so consequential anymore. It is easy to be dismissive or indifferent to the problems experienced by my students because I forget that I am looking at their problems through my own eyes. Of course, I can't make this time any less strange or disorienting for my students, but I can listen to them and help them understand that this stage of their life is anything but inconsequential. They are going to experience failure and make bad decisions - it is a natural part of growth and there is nothing shameful about it. Teens have the same needs adults have; to feel validated, loved, cared for, and to be given the time and space to figure themselves out.
For the most part, teaching and learning about human reproduction with my ninth graders has been a relatively matter-of-fact experience. Partly, I think it has to do with the fact that my students are English Language Learners who did not know what a lot of the vocabulary meant and so were completely uninhibited in its usage, "Miss, what is erection?", "Miss, what does orgasm mean?", "Miss, what is pubic hair?". I think the other part of why this whole experience has felt so emotionally sterile is cultural and has to do with the values and environment my students grew up in. I have noticed that they are generally shy about broaching the topic of sexual intimacy. We have not yet had a discussion about cultural norms and the role it plays in terms of our decision making when it comes to sex and relationships. A good next step I'd say.
Some cool sex-ed resources to check out:
For the last two months at my new school, I have been devoting so much of my time and energy planning and preparing that I haven't really been enjoying the actual teaching. This past weekend was the first weekend where I hadn't felt pressure to do something - I could just be. Sure, there was marking to be done and rubrics to be made, but I no longer felt the urgency of it all. I simply existed. I was just another presence in the universe with no agenda or ulterior motive. It sure felt great. I had a life again, and it was mine. For the first time in a what feels like a VERY long time, I did not put my students first.
That much needed mental break was just what I needed to be able to step back and appreciate all the good things that had been going on in my classroom that I subconsciously chose to ignore. It's ironic really, that choosing to be a good, well-organized, and prepared teacher for me meant being less emotionally available to my students. An odd realization to have, but a necessary one.
Teaching is very much a collection of moments, and if I'm not careful they quickly slip away and are lost to the busy hum of school life. Yet, it is precisely those little moments that make teaching so extraordinarily wonderful. You never know when it'll happen, but when it does, it is magical.
Today, a student of mine, one who is not particularly keen or motivated in school, who frequently falls asleep in class, and is usually late, RUNS into my class at lunch time and excitedly yells, "MS. SOO I'M HERE! CAN I LOOK AT THOSE FLOWER PARTS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE?"
Me on the outside:
"Why, yes good sir, you may examine those flower parts under the microscope."
Music to my ears.
International math educator who writes, occasionally.