“I try a mix of humour and deadly seriousness”: an interview with a sex education teacher

Has sex education has improved over time? At the moment, I would say that we have regressed
Content TeamBy Content Team  •  May 8, 2017 at 11:24am  •  Education, Sex, Students

Mrs Andrews has been teaching for over 30 years – always in local senior school comprehensives. She began as a Home Economics teacher and later taught Food Technology, Child Development, and Health and Social Care.


How long have you been teaching sex education?

Well, I’ve given students information about sex when teaching other subjects like Health and Social Care or Child Development for about 32 years. But in terms of a class specifically focussed on Sex Education… I would say about 10 years.


Have there been any major changes to Sex Education as a subject?

I can only talk about my school really. Each school will handle Sex Education in its own unique way depending on the head teacher and governors’ objectives. My school has been one of the most advanced in formally educating students about sex. The school used to make it part of the PSHE (Personal and Social Health Education) rota, where each class in year 10 would have 6 hours devoted to Sex Education, alongside Law, Home Management, Family Planning, etc. The names of the sections on the PSHE rota changed each year – except mine. Leading up to year 10, year 7s and older students would have a few lessens a year describing the biology and risks of sex. But, less than 3 years ago, the new head teacher felt this was a waste of time and now devotes that time instead to more classes in English, Maths or Independent Study. Our school now has a single day where a person will come to the school to talk to the year group about sex.


Do you think the drop-in day is a sufficient replacement?

No, how can I? The instructors may be very qualified and knowledgeable, but they are not teachers. Most children won’t listen to a lecture or take a stranger too seriously. Substitute teachers know this only too well. Even if they occasionally are teachers, how can you engage properly with 300 students at once? The day is given over to awkwardness and some even trying not to listen. Also – one sick day, holiday or truancy… and the opportunity is missed entirely.


Would you have said your Sex Education classes were the ideal?

Nothing is perfect or full-proof in education. But it was pretty good, if I do say so myself.


Do you feel the children during the last 3 years have been missing out?

Oh yes. Their education in this area is pitiful compared to the students of previous years. Ex-students can’t believe that their younger brothers and sisters aren’t doing Sex Education anymore.


Are you worried that these children may be getting the wrong information now by looking elsewhere?

Even when I was teaching a timetabled class, I would come across children whose knowledge comes from violent films, pornography or parents who openly share the harsher side of their own sex-lives with them. In my classes, I would go through the law with them, the risks, how to avoid being groomed, sex in the media and its relationship with technology, the necessary safety measures and how sex is about affection, tenderness and love. They are all aware of the result of unprotected sex, but they also believe so many myths about sex that could lead to mistakes or regrets if not cleared up. You’d be surprised at the odd questions or beliefs people can have about sex.

Now that scheduled class-time has gone, I’m not sure if there is any way to have a universal base-line of knowledge for all students; that comes from a responsible, objective adult. The internet has its limits when it comes to genuine information about sex and even then it must be difficult to sort the fact from the fiction. This is assuming that children want to Google it at all. It’s too gross – too embarrassing; so they live without knowing and are vulnerable to possible risk.


Can you go through what you would do with these lessons?

I’d mix humour with deadly seriousness. For example, the first class I’d play the song Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt-N-Pepa. Bit old-school, but it gets the message across. I also have 10 minutes, where we ‘get it out of our system’ and I encourage them to call out all the words they can think of for sex, genitalia etc. After that, I will not allow slang in the classroom – only the correct terms. I also gave them a true-or- false test during the first lesson and then another true-or- false test at the very end of the last class. It was only to show progress and I told them that so they wouldn’t panic about it. The progress each student made was spectacular. Oh, and of course, I’d roll out my favourite DVD: The A-Z of Sex. That DVD is still remembered by the ex-students I run into on occasion.


Did you discuss trans and gay sex?

Oh yes, I would mention it throughout really or at the very least discuss it during the first and second lessons. How it works biologically… How it is natural… How it should be taken just as seriously and how it has as many risks as heterosexual relationships. I’m not sure how the school is explaining the gender revolution and LGBT+ issues. Surely a bit during that drop-in day or may be in Biology lessons? 30 years ago, it was actually illegal to discuss such things with students. It was seen as encouraging such behaviour. I still did – but was very cautious. I wouldn’t refuse to answer such questions when I was asked. Again though, I don’t think my approach was universal. There is enough in the newspapers complaining on the lack of information afforded to students concerning these subjects.


Who were the worst to teach? Boys or girls?

Genuinely? There wasn’t any difference.

The difference in behaviour between my students was the spectrum of knowledge the students already had. That was the most challenging part of being a Sex Education teacher: working with children who knew almost everything to children who knew absolutely nothing and couldn’t stand to hear, see or even think about it. I had no problem engaging my students, teaching them and gaining positive feedback, really. But the diversity of knowledge properly tested my abilities as a teacher. The 15-16 year olds who had been having sex for years were really interested, ready to learn more and happy to discuss issues as they saw them as very important. Those students had already overcome the awkwardness. I could always handle brashness or coarseness or cheekiness… Nothing shocks me anymore. Now, trying to talk to the good, studious children? That was a problem. They would avoid eye contact. Try and block it out. It’s the sort of subject you can’t force on a person, so I just did my best to interest them and make it very clear how important the class discussion was.


Do you disagree with pornography?

I think it gives a skewed view on sex: more rough, hours of orgasms, screaming, shaved genitalia. It may have its place. But I feel it has no educational value and I get the impression sometimes that people learn wrong or distorted perspectives from it. I know it is not intended to educate but to entertain; except people do use is as a point of reference and do accept the fantasy as reality.


Would you say Sex Education has improved?

At the moment, I would say that we have regressed. The drop-in sex education day is not good enough. But I have hopes that PSHE and such timetabled classes will make a return next year. Overall, as a country I would like to think that it has improved. At least such education is discussed now, compared to 30 years ago. I also think the need for it has increased as false information about sex is being spread across the internet, which can be picked up by any student. I think it is our duty as educators to dispel such myths and explain the truth.

As told to Emily Watton

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