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Are phys ed teachers the best people to teach sex ed in BC?

More training needed to teach responsible, inclusive sex ed, says Options for Sexual Health

"I would say that it is entirely up to the teacher teaching how inclusive or not inclusive their lessons are," says Kristen Gilbert, senior health educator at BC's Options for Sexual Health. Credit: Nathaniel Christopher photo

Education advocates are calling on the incoming minister of education to ensure that all BC students, regardless of location, sexual orientation or gender identity, receive comprehensive sex education under the revised curriculum that is slated for implementation in September.

Sex education is included in the curriculum for Health and Career Education K to 7, Health and Career Education 8 and 9 and Planning 10, which were last updated between 2005 and 2007. BC Teachers’ Federation vice-president Glen Hansman says the sexual health component of these courses are being moved to what will be called Health and Physical Education.

“It is not known what the plan for implementation will be – what sorts of on-the-job training opportunities will be available for teachers, for instance, or what sort of updated learning resources will be available,” he says. “We’ve raised concerns that they are getting rid of Planning 10 where it’s housed and said to politicians that there needs to be plans to deal with this stuff. We’ll be raising it again with the new minister because we don’t have clear answers.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education says that sex education will remain in the curriculum.

“Health and Career Education K to 7, Health and Career Education 8 and 9 and Planning 10 are still in place,” the spokesperson says. “A review of all curriculum is underway as part of the ministry’s curriculum transformation. A team of BC teachers is currently reviewing the health curriculum component. Initial consultations have suggested that Health and PE curricula could be combined.”

Drafts of redesigned curricula are expected to be available for review this fall, the spokesperson says.

Hansman worries that the government does not have a plan to support the implementation of any new sexual education curriculum, especially if it’s housed under physical education.

He also notes that funding cuts have meant that there are few on-the-job training opportunities for teachers to get up to speed on the teaching of sexual health education.

Nor is there any systemic effort being made to ensure that sexual health education is queer-inclusive, with supports in place for both teachers and learners, he points out.

“Where are PE teachers supposed to go to teach this material responsibly and make sure that the teaching for sex ed is mindful of kids who may not self-identify as gay or lesbian but who may engage in same-sex sexual behaviour, or kids that are transitioning from one gender to another?” Hansman asks.

“Either people are relying on things they find on Google or experience in their own life, and that’s not good enough,” he says.

“I think you would be reasonable to say the large majority of young queer men do not get that education through the school system, and I think you could say the same goes for young queer women.”

Kristen Gilbert, senior health educator at Options for Sexual Health, Canada’s largest non-profit provider of sexual health services, says BC teachers need more support and training in order to deliver sexual education that is inclusive of queer and trans students.

“I would say that it is entirely up to the teacher teaching how inclusive or not inclusive their lessons are,” she says. “There actually isn’t anything in the kindergarten through Planning 10 learning outcomes about ensuring that queer kids are represented in the curriculum.”

“The BC Ministry of Education needs to be specific about addressing the needs of queer students,” Gilbert says, “and teachers should learn in their pre-service training how to include all students in their lessons.”

Options for Sexual Health offers a comprehensive certification course for teachers and other people who wish to deliver sex education sessions. Gilbert says teachers from school districts all over British Columbia have attended her courses.

“It’s not the school boards sending the teachers – it’s teachers who recognize that they need their skills updated because teachers don’t get any pre-service training in the area,” she says. “When they go to teachers college, nobody learns sex ed. Even if you are going to be a Planning 10 teacher there is no special training. So teachers working in the field can recognize they can need additional training to ensure the sex ed they are delivering is high quality, comprehensive and speaks to all students.”

Myriam Dumont, a Vancouver elementary school teacher who has completed the Options for Sexual Health certification coursework, says she did not receive any training for teaching sex education in her university studies.

“There are no university courses to teach sex ed,” she says. “Although it’s mandatory in the curriculum, it’s left out, and as a new teacher you’re thrown in to a classroom expected to teach it.”

“It’s the most challenging subject to teach, and many teachers don’t teach, so it’s just left out,” she continues. “I started teaching it on my own and then took a course with other folks and then took the Options for Sexual Health course.”

“At the elementary level there is a place in sexual health to open the discussion about what gender is,” Dumont says. “In high school we can build on that more and look more into not just how do I need to protect myself if I’m straight, but what I might do as, say, a gay 16-year-old boy who wants to be sexually active. Nobody is talking about that.

“Sex ed is taught in such a heteronormative way that queer kids will ask, ‘How does that apply to me?'”

In 2010 the Vancouver School Board (VSB) put in place a policy for the implementation of sexual health education at schools throughout the district. It calls on educators to be “aware of the potential presence of lesbian, gay or trans-identifying students in the class (or students that engage in same-sex sexual practice, regardless of self-identification) and choosing resources and information that are inclusive.”

Jan Sippel, the VSB’s abuse prevention coordinator, says the district spent more than three years developing a comprehensive training program for Health and Planning 5, 6 and 7. “We support teachers to give them the comfort and competence to deliver sexual health education sensitively in the classroom and be inclusive of all students. We don’t have a similar training at the secondary level, and we don’t have it under Grade 5.”

“We are not, I don’t think, as a province, paying attention to the need for comprehensive sexual health education for our students and assisting our families to be askable people in their children’s lives and be the primary sexual health educators for their children,” Sippel says. “We are supporting and supplementing what the parents are doing, and in some cases we’re the only place where kids are getting their sexual health education.”

Gilbert says that at the end of the day, sex education is often dependent upon the persistence of parents or caregivers.

“Even though I am a sex ed teacher, I have to advocate for my daughter to get sex ed,” she says. “All parents and caregivers should be aware of their children’s right to learn sex ed in school. And when it’s not being delivered we should advocate their right to sex ed because it keeps them safe.”