The debate over how to teach sex and relationships doesn't seem like much of a debate at all.
Turn on the 6 o'clock news. Any station will do, though some will demonstrate my point more than others. What content are you inviting into your home? The odds are good - almost guaranteed, in fact - that you will see a corpse. You will probably see a person wielding a firearm. In today's climate you're likely to see a government at war with its people. Guaranteed you'll hear of at least one murder. You'll see violence so senseless that you... well, nothing. If you're like millions of television viewers, you are generally unmoved by it.
How many people have you murdered?
If I did a survey of people reading this blog, and asked how many people had murdered someone else, I imagine my affirmative response rate for that question would be low. Most of us have, at best, a cursory, distanced relationship with that level of violence.
Go back to the news. What won't you see? Well, in Canada and the UK, you're not likely to see a penis or a vagina at all, and if you do it'll be an animation, or they'll be a clear censorship bar or pixelation of the image. Breasts may make a casual appearance, provided they too a blurred out.
If I did a survey of this blog's visitors and asked how many had genitals, I'm quite sure more than 99 per cent of readers would confirm that they, in fact, do have genitals.
So I don't understand this discomfort with talking about them, or what they are for. As a generalisation we seem completely comfortable with the most egregious forms of violence being shown in prime time, but sex is danced around. Alluded to. We have to infer it from TV sitcoms showing two people in bed together with mysterious, L-shaped sheets that cover a woman's chest while leaving the man's bare (and that's just heterosexual relationships. I'll have more to say on the characterisation of homosexual relationships in prime time in a later blog).
A culture lacking frank sexuality.
People are spun into dizzying psychoses trying to assess their sexual character against an ambiguous standard, and regardless of how sexualised our culture seems to be, it lacks simple, frank sexuality.
This is having a seriously detrimental effect on the healthy development of our young people, not because "being human" is changing so drastically, but because (and it's no secret) access to sex is everywhere. There was a day when "sex" was the most-searched for word on every search engine, though I suppose people have either become more refined or more explicit in their search keywords.
Personal electronics mean even the most innocently curious person can suddenly have gigabytes of information at their fingertips. And I do mean innocent curiosity. It is well within the bounds of reality to expect people to be curious, and it is silly and negligent of us to ignore this fact using an outdated shield of "propriety." There is nothing improper about the curiosity, but there are ways that we can harness that curiosity as educators, as we seek out positive, healthy, developmental lessons for young people.
Sex education is not keeping the pace with pornography.
Recently, Guardian Teach tweeted a link to a well-curated resource list.
The list comes on the heels of a BBC article claiming (quite correctly) that sex education is not keeping the pace with pornography, and as a result young people are poorly prepared for "real world" (my phrase, not theirs) sexuality (ie: outside of a classroom/laboratory/textbook setting). There is no shortage of anecdotal data to indicate that people's perceptions (whether they are young or old) are substantially, significantly altered by what they have viewed, whether they were seeking it out or not.
I am not here to make an argument that "all people are sexual beings" nor am I here to claim that "sex is beautiful and should be celebrated." Those opinions have existed for a long time, and have been expressed clearly elsewhere. I simply want to say that our current approach is damaging, monumentally slow to change, and too heavily politicised.
Don't put me in charge. But if you did...
If I were asked right now what I would propose, if I had some say in the sex and relationships education curriculum, I would base any proposal around these five foundations:
1) Access to sexual content is nearly impossible to control.
2) People young and old have an innate curiosity about the mechanics, the biology, and the emotions of sexual relationships.
3) The access to content, coupled with the deep sense of inquiry around sexual relationships, can create some significant, meaningful teaching and learning opportunities.
4) The best teaching opportunities will take into account the social context of the subject matter, and the sensitivities that range from class to class.
5) Shying away from sex and relationship education, even as it becomes more challenging, has never worked and will never work.
My measures of success would be manifest across the statistics available, and I would look for successful indicators in:
- Student feedback: do the learners feel they have a better understanding (not just a better impression of) the subject matter?
- Teacher feedback: did conversations about sex and relationship education become more mature, more discursive, and more educational over time?
- Are students more adept at discussions the scientific aspects of sex? Can they identify the connection between sexual content on the Internet, and sexual assaults? Can they identify (and therefore avoid) the dangers associated with their own sexual expression online?
- Has there been any impact on the rate of locally-reported STIs, underage/unplanned pregnancies, or sexual assault?
- Has there been a positive change in the number of people seeking advice about contraception, family planning, and/or safe sex?
- Have pastoral/religious organisations noticed a positive trend amongst their populations?
I'll conclude by summing up my original point: why are we so tolerant of prime time violence, but so squeamish about sex?
How much positive change could we make if we approached its teaching, not as a rite-of-passage, or a taboo, or an embarrassing and awkward lesson plan that is sure to break classes into fits of laughter? But rather, as a fairly universal human experience, which has a social and a scientific basis, and which can be understood better by seeking out answers with the guidance of people who know how to find the answers they need, and not the first answers to come up on the search engine.
Once annually, a cohort of passionate, engaged, and remarkably engaging young teachers descends on idyllic Stoke Rochford Hall, the National Union of Teachers' training headquarters.
I am back from a remarkable and surprising weekend away.
A few months ago, a colleague of mine (who I admire greatly for her own passionate engagement with the issues that affect my workplace) made sure I got an application sent in for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Young Teachers' Conference (YTC). For this I am grateful.
The mission of the conference is professional development and networking opportunities for young teachers nationwide (England and Wales). As I meet the necessary criteria (young: check; teacher: check!) I felt I could not miss the opportunity.
Admittedly, arriving Friday evening after a full work day and 2 hour drive wasn't perfectly ideal, but my exhaustion from the week was soon forgotten. I was greeted by a fantastic meal, in an exquisite country setting, and there just happened to be sun at the time! Networking began during the first meal, where I defaulted to my usual approach when meeting new people: dry humour bordering on the obnoxious. (Okay, maybe it isn't my best trait, but I find people quickly realise they'll either want to keep talking with me, or they have been fairly warned that I am just that kind of guy.) Fortunately, these particular ladies took kindly to my nonsense, and soon I was the proprietor of an extra dessert.
Next up was the intellectual challenge of a pub-quiz style quiz in the stunning library at Stoke Rochford Hall. Regrettably, I wasn't able to see through the end of the quiz as transport arrangements did not permit, but from what I understand my team came 3rd.
Without going into an obsessive amount of detail, I will outline some of the highlights of the next day:
NUT General Secretary Christine Blower gave a rousing address to the conference, outlining her enthusiasm for the policy direction that the NUT membership has set out, and coherently articulating why so many teachers do not support the changes to education being introduced by the Education Secretary.
Blower's most compelling comment was that the government has created a system of "toxic accountability," in which schools are committed, not to learning or students, but to statistics, and that this in turn poisons the school for all of the people for whom that building is a community.
She highlighted examples of the education systems in Alberta and Indiana, where teachers set personal improvement targets which are completely developmental, not used as a form of performance management, and supported by their schools' leadership and management.
Blower also highlighted the success of the educational system in Finland, which promotes "responsibility, not 'accountability.'" I interpreted this as meaning that responsibility is being accountable to something more than just paperwork and statistics and it is a statement that will stay with me through my professional life.
"The idea that we have children who come to school hungry and leave school hungry is a terrible indictment of our education system." - Christine Blower
Blower also referenced the recent and horrible news story of Daniel Pelka, a young boy allegedly starved to death by his parents, as she reinforced the NUT's commitment to universal free school meals. Her comments were a sad reminder that teachers need to fulfil a role that is much greater than simply ticking boxes and indicating progress.
The Young Teachers assembled were also treated a lively and informative discussion on protecting the future of education by Sue Cowley, a behaviour expert, teacher, parent, and school leader. Her talk was not on behaviour specifically, as most delegates probably expected, but rather on the role of Union members as safeguards against unwarranted, sustained attacks on not just teachers, but the entire education system.
"As a parent, I beg you: Please save education. For my children, for your children." - Sue Cowley
I walked away from Cowley's presentation with one particularly good new resource, that is a website run by a woman named Janet Downs, who has been hammering away at the Department for Education with Freedom of Information requests. In this one, Mrs Downs shows us that surveys quoted by the Education Secretary saying British teenagers are woefully ignorant about history were undertaken Lord Ashcroft (the only seemingly-legitimate survey in the group), and Premier Inns.
Sue Cowley also encouraged all teachers to create a real online presence in order to voice their discomfort with the current direction being taken in the Department for Education under its current leadership.
As she is new to Twitter, I will also include this link to her Twitter account as she builds up her own follower base.
"I have two gerbils named Watson and Crick, which is fitting as I'm a biology teacher."
This quotation summarises one of the best part of this experience: meeting new people. I love it. I find people to be fascinating and incredibly inspiring, especially when you get insights into their lives, like this clearly-committed biology teacher.
I will not go into detail about the rest of the conference, although I could write many, many more words about its positive impact on me as a teacher and an activist.
If you are a teacher under 35 in England or Wales, I strongly encourage you to consider attending this conference in the future. You will come away smarter, more passionate, and more informed that you left, and you'll have a great time in the process.
Addendum: I had such a good experience at this year's conference I put myself forward to help organise next year's. The delegates were kind enough to give me their votes (and for that I am thankful). If you were a conference participant are struck with an idea, you're welcome to leave a comment here, or tweet me.
Premier Kathleen Wynne has stuck to her promise of tackling the sore issue of teacher employment in Ontario. A bone of contention for many (including myself): the province has continually allowed around 3,000 surplus graduates to complete teacher education every year since at least 2009, but likely much longer.
Now, the Premier is proposing not only doubling the amount of time it will take to become a teacher (as put forward by her predecessor), but also dramatically reducing or halving the number of places in Faculties of Education in Ontario.
While I'm happy the Premier is taking action on this, I do not support her current plan.
Firstly, the new 2-year Bachelor of Education degree will no doubt create a two-tiered system of teachers in the province, those who trained for a one-year degree, and those with the 2-year degree.
With 15,000 surplus teachers seeking meaningful employment in their field, I am nervous about which tier Boards will favour. And of course I have to ask: Will 2-year teachers earn more money? Will 1-year teachers eventually be forced into a second year of teacher training? These issues have not yet been addressed by the Premier.
Second, the cost of becoming a teacher has now doubled. Would-be teachers are about to face a massive alteration of their budgets. Students with student loans have tacked on another few years of repayment, and students without loans may now need to consider financing.
The incidental costs of teacher training will also double: travel costs to practicum placements high on the list of new expenses, particularly as the Premier has said she will double the classroom placement component of a Bachelor of Education degree.
Lastly, the Premier has not tackled the other root causes of the teacher surplus, namely class sizes that have steadily increased as Boards do their level best to reduce HR costs. A true re-imagining of the current system for qualifying teachers needs to also include some signs that schools will be better placed to reduce their class sizes and fund the new teaching positions that would emerge as a result.
Recently, I was having a discussion with a colleague at work and the topic of leadership and management came up. I was surprised to learn that "manager" is seen as a bit of a taboo word, though I certainly did not mean to imply anything negative.
But I did start thinking.
What is a manager, and what is a leader? Are all people in management positions leaders ex-officio?
In short: "no," but I realise it has become the trend to do away with the more industrial-sounding "manager" in favour of the motivating and inspiring "leader" when this so often should not be the case.
I can sum it up the distinction between the two right now: I want to work with a leader, and I want to work for a manager. If a person can be both, great! If not, then I will seek out both wherever I am.
A Manager: A do-er. A person of organisation, and of action, who can take in all the details necessary and relevant for situation, and act on them - often on the spot, if required. The person who makes the trains run on time.
A Leader: A person who, through their own example, provides inspiration and motivation. They are capable of coherently expressing a purpose and a vision, and as a result people want to emulate them or simply be moved by them. The person who dreams up the train. A leader may have an intuitive understanding of the people that surround them, and as a result may find communicating with them that much simpler.
The Leader-Manager: A hybrid of the two. They have the capacity for organisation and details that a team desperately needs, coupled with the je ne sais quoi qualities of leadership that are so hard to pin down. They are the boss's boss, not because of any single leadership or management attribute, but because of how seamlessly they have woven the two together.
How To Spot the Difference: Well this is where it gets sensitive. A leader will almost never refer to themselves as such, though whether this is a compliment or a critique I have yet to determine. Conversely, to an extent all managers need to ensure that their roles are understood, and that their place in an organisational hierarchy is clear.
Why All Managers Aren't Leaders (and some are): Briefly, it is because they don't have to be. An organisation of any notable size (let's say with more than three people involved) at some point will need someone to simply manage something. The fact that the trains run on time is far more impressive a feat than simply dreaming up a train that never goes anywhere. There is nothing lacking in a manager who is not also a leader, just like there is nothing lacking in a leader who is not in a management position. The two qualities can be complementary, but they are not requisite to one-another.
Some leaders rise to management, and in doing so take on a degree of formalised responsibility. They have tasks and deadlines and other managers to work with, and while they may retain their intrinsic leadership qualities, they now also have to meet their management objectives. This might mean using their management skills to settle an interpersonal dispute at the office, or it might be setting organisational targets for the upcoming fiscal or academic year. They may have the advantage in that they are able to use pre-existing leadership qualities to generate consensus, however, a leader in a manager's role has given up their informal responsibility, the kind that arises from having an influence over other people without actually having a mechanism for exerting that influence, nor any obligation to do so.
What Does it All Mean? Let's stop this fear of the word "manager" right now, before it's too late and suddenly things just stop being managed at all!
Managers: Find the leaders in your organisation (hint: look below you on the organisational chart as well as above you) and encourage them in every possible way. Note their style of practise and develop ways of propagating that style. Let them inspire you as much as you need to keep them focused.
Leaders: Your informal responsibility is just that, a responsibility. Whether it is known to you or not, people all over your organisation look to you for the motivation and inspiration to do their job in a fulfilling, gratifying, and constantly-improving way.