Answering difficult sexual education questions in the classroom
Many types of questions come up in the classroom. Find out whether your school district supports you in answering all questions that students ask. Many districts do, as long as questions are answered in age-appropriate ways.
In order to learn how to answer questions in the classroom, it may be helpful to categorize the types of questions that you will be asked.
These are relatively easy to answer. You are not being asked your opinion -- you can answer with basic information. You should use your professional judgment to determine how much detail you need to go into.
Examples of fact questions:
Q: What is an erection?
A: An erection is the penis or clitoris filling with blood and becoming larger and harder.
Q: Should you worry if you're 14 and you haven't gotten your period?
A: No. It's perfectly normal to not have your period when you're 14 years old. If a girl hasn't gotten her period by the time she's 16 years old she should talk to someone in her family or a trusted adult.
Q: What is sperm?
A: The cell from a man's body that can start a pregnancy.
It is not possible, or desirable, to provide value-free education. Questions which have a value component must be answered with care -- expressing your own personal values might hurt or offend a child and their family. With some values, it's perfectly appropriate for you to express your opinion:
- Relatively UNIVERSAL values are those shared by 95% of families which the teacher should feel comfortable, and is in fact, OBLIGATED to teach.
Examples of relatively UNIVERSAL values:
- Forcing someone to have sex with you is wrong
- Knowingly spreading disease is wrong
- It's safest and healthiest for school-age kids not to have sex (this is NOT controversial, what IS controversial is when it's fine to have sex)
- Taking care of your reproductive health is important
- Sex between children and adults is wrong
- Adultery is wrong
Values that are CONTROVERSIAL are those without consensus in the community,
- which the teacher should NEVER teach or express a particular belief - providing information or facilitating discussion about the issues is fine.
Examples of CONTROVERSIAL issues that have a wide range of values in the community:
- Birth control
- Sex outside of marriage
- What age/under what circumstances it's ok to start having sex
NOTE: Parents, unlike teachers, should feel free to ask your child about his or her beliefs and to share yours. In fact, this sort of dialogue within families is very important. Employees of public schools and other public agencies have an ethical obligation not to side with one family or one religious perspective or one child over another. But children absolutely need a chance -- at home -- to explore feelings and beliefs with adults they love, just as they need a chance to learn factual information and to have universal, community values reinforced at school.
However, just because it's inappropriate in a public school setting to teach particular values on controversial issues, that does not mean one can't teach about the issues. It just means that it must be done with respect for the diversity of opinion within your community. For example, you can discuss abortion -- what it is, the fact that it is legal in this country, where abortions are performed, etc., but it is not appropriate to share your beliefs about whether or not abortion is a correct choice.
Therefore, when answering a value question you should follow the values question protocol.
F.L.A.S.H. Values Question Protocol
- Read (or listen to the question).
- Legitimize the question
- Identify it as a belief question.
- Answer the factual part, if there is one.
- Help the class describe the community's range of beliefs.
- Refer to family, clergy, and other trusted adults.
- Check to see if you answered the question.
- Leave the door open.
Examples of Value Questions:
Q: I masturbate, is that ok?
A: That's a great question, a lot of kids wonder about masturbation. Masturbation is when a person strokes or touches their genitals for pleasure. I can't share my own beliefs about whether or not it's ok to masturbate because families have really different beliefs about masturbation. Some families believe it's ok, as long as you're in a private place. Other families believe it's never ok. You need to check with your families, or another trusted adult to find out how they feel about it. Have I answered your question? If I didn't, you can leave another question in the box or you can talk to me after class.
You will eventually tailor your use of the protocol, only using every step the first time masturbation, for example, comes up. For now, you should practice the protocol step by step -- until it becomes a natural part of your teaching.
- Read the question. Verbatim, if you can. Use your judgment, of course, but even reading aloud relatively crude language -- as long as you do it with a serious tone and facial expression -- conveys your respect for the child who asked the question. It is likely to promote respect in return. If the language is too crude to repeat, even with a red face and an explanation ("Someone used slang, but let me read it for you as they wrote it before I translate it."), then don't read it directly. But when you paraphrase it, make sure you are clear enough that the author of the question will recognize it as his or hers.
- Legitimize the question:
"I am glad someone asked this one."
"That's an interesting question."
"People ask me this one every year."
"This one is really thoughtful/compassionate/imaginative/respectful."
This will encourage your students to keep asking even as it discourages snide remarks about whomever asked that particular question.
- Identify it as a belief question:
"Most of the questions you've been asking have been "fact questions" where I could look up an answer that all the experts agree upon. This one is more of a "value question" where every person, every family, every religion has a different belief."
Teaching your students to distinguish facts from opinions (and from feelings) is at least as important as any content you will convey.
- Answer the factual part, if there is one. Thus, for instance, if the question is about the rightness or wrongness of masturbation, you need to make sure that your class understands that -- values notwithstanding -- no physical harm results from masturbating:
"Before we get to differing beliefs about masturbation, let me just make sure you know it doesn't cause people to go blind or mentally ill or to grow hair on their palms or anything like that."
Even questions that are apparently fact questions may need a discussion of the underlying values, but always start by answering them:
"Can you get birth control without your boyfriend or husband’s knowing? Yes, legally in our state, you can. Now let’s talk about the different beliefs people might have about couple’s communicating about birth control."
- Help the class describe the community's range of beliefs, not their own. On sensitive issues such as sex and religion, it can be really unfair (and, in Washington State, illegal) to ask individual students their own beliefs. But it is very appropriate to generalize:
"Tell me some of the things you've heard that people believe about that."
Prompt the group with a stem sentence:
"Some people believe ___?"
"Um, hmm, and some people believe ___?"
In a class that is used to thinking about the range of community values, you will be able to draw a full assortment of answers from the students. In other groups, especially younger ones, you may draw only a dichotomy ("Some people believe abortion is wrong." and "Some people believe it is right.") In any case, your role is two-fold: (1) to make sure that every belief gets expressed -- or paraphrased -- respectfully, hopefully just as the person who believed it might express it and (2) to make sure that a complete a range of beliefs gets expressed, even if you have to supplement the few values the group can think of:
"That's right, some people believe that it is wrong under any circumstances. And some believe it is right under any circumstances, as long as the woman and her doctor think it's best. Some believe it is OK to have an abortion if you have been raped or if your life is in danger, but not otherwise. Some believe, it is OK to have an abortion if there's something seriously wrong with the fetus and it is doomed to a life of pain. Some think it is best for teens to have abortions, than to raise babies when they are still growing up themselves. Others disagree. Some feel it is better to have an abortion if you already have as many children as you can afford or take proper care of. Again, others disagree. They may feel that abortion is the same as murder. Whereas, some people think it is not really a separate human being with rights until it is developed enough to have feelings or until it is actually born."
- Refer to family, clergy and other trusted adults.
"Because people have such different beliefs about this, I really want to encourage you to talk with your families -- your parent or guardian, grandparent, auntie, uncle, stepparent, mom's or dad's partner -- or with somebody at your community of worship, if you attend a church or synagogue or temple -- or with some other adult you love and whose opinions matter to you. That could be your babysitter, your best friend's parent, a counselor, or whomever will listen to your opinions and honestly share theirs. Have a conversation within the next week if you can."
Notice that this encouragement didn't assume that every child has a parent they can talk with. Some may be newly in a new foster home and don't yet have that kind of relationship with their new "parents." Also, notice that we shouldn't assume that every child goes to church.
What if the family is likely to convey values that the child will feel hurt by (a teen who has come out to you as gay, for instance, but whose family is strongly opposed to homosexuality)? Still, knowing one's family's beliefs is developmentally important for young people. But help them think of other trusted adults, as well.
- Check to see if you answered the question.
"Is that what you were asking?"
"Do y'all think that was what the person who wrote this question was asking?"
- Leave the door open.
"If that isn't what you really wanted to know, you can drop another question in the box. Or come talk with me in private. You can also get a friend to ask it aloud for you or to explain to me what you meant. Just keep asking until I understand and tell you what you need to know."
Finally, if you can do it sincerely, thank the class -- or in a one-on-one situation, the student -- for their maturity or curiosity or compassion or whatever positive qualities the Q & A session has helped them to demonstrate. That will not only increase their retention, it will improve the odds of their repeating the positive behavior on the next occasion.
You have an obligation to convey, through tone and willingness to read most questions verbatim, your respect for theperson asking the question and faith in his/her motives for asking the question.
Trust your professional judgment and personal comfort as guides.
- Read the question verbatim (unless it makes you too, too uncomfortable? in which case, own your discomfort and reword the question, making sure it's still identifiable to its author).
- Identify the slang as such, in a non-judgmental sort of way (unless it is derogatory, demeaning slang?in which case identify it as a put down whether it was meant to be or not).
- Translate into medical/standard (or, in the case of demeaning slang, "more respectful/sensitive") language.
- Write the medical/standard/respectful/sensitive term on the board.
- Answer the question - if it's also a value question (for example, "Is it ok to jack off?"), use the value question protocol below
- Check to see if you answered the question.
Remember, language, including slang, isn't necessarily good or bad. It's important to have medical language as well as a soft, playful language.
The advantages of reading the question verbatim, if at all possible (given boundaries of one's own discretion and comfort) include:
- Not confusing the author of the question
- Communicating your respect for the students and your trust in their sincerity and maturity
- Communicatingthat you are relatively unflappable and accepting
- Diffusing the need to test
Examples of a slang question (this question is also a fact question):
Q: How does a dick get big?
A: A lot of people wonder that. "Dick" is a slang term for penis (write "penis" on the board). The penis is full of blood vessels and veins. When the blood vessels and veins fill with blood, the penis gets harder and larger. That's called an erection. Another way a penis gets bigger is by slowly growing bigger as a boy's body grows to the size of a man's body. I hope I answered the question -- if I didn't, please let me know or put another question in the box.
Example of a slang question that's also about a controversial value:
Q: What if you're a boy and you really like boys, does that make you a faggot?
A: That's a really interesting question. "Faggot" is a put-down word for a person that's a homosexual (write "homosexual" on the board). Other terms are "gay" if it's a man, or "lesbian" if it's a woman. A homosexual is someone who is attracted to and falls in love with people of the same sex. Many boys have really close friendships with other boys, and it doesn't mean they are gay. Families have really different beliefs about homosexuality. Some families believe you're born that way and that it's normal that some people are homosexuals. Other families believe that's it's very wrong and not at all normal. You need to talk to your families about what they believe about homosexuality. Whatever your family believes, it's never acceptable to hurt or tease someone because you think they might be gay or lesbian.
The question you don't understand
It's important to own your responsibility for not understanding (as opposed to blaming the author of the question).
You have several options for these types of questions. Listed below are some of your options -- they are in no particular order.
- Guess at the author's intended question and answer it using the appropriate protocol (value or slang). You may need to answer more than one possible question.
- Ask if anyone in the class knows what the person might have meant,
- Invite the author to drop another question in the question box, rephrasing what she/he meant.
Example of a question you don't understand (from a middle school ESL class):
Q: If you got zix do you fell sick?
A: I'm not sure I understand this student's question -- I'm not always up to date on words students like to use! Does anyone know what this student might have meant? No? OK, I'll guess at what they might have meant. There are some illnesses that people can get where they don't feel sick. Some sexually transmitted diseases are that way -- you might have one and not feel sick at all. If a person is having sex, they should get checked for sexually transmitted diseases at a clinic, even if they don't feel sick. I hope I answered this question -- if I didn't, I hope whoever wrote it will try to reword it and put it in the box again.
The question you don't know the answer to
It's important to acknowledge your limits -- admit you don't know! Again, there are several ways you can answer this type of question.
- Promise to find out and get back to them -- then do, and tell them how/where you found out,
- Ask if anyone in the class knows the answer,
- Look it up in front of them,
- Get a volunteer to research it and report back. Provide some guidance about where the volunteer might go for the answer, and consider offering extra credit.
Remember to share with your class that even adults (teachers, doctors, journalists, etc.) don't know all there is to know about human sexuality. The "admission" you don't know is not a failure but a vital opportunity to model this concept. The skill of finding answers is more crucial than the answer itself.
An example of a question you might not know the answer to:
Q: What causes PMS?
A: That's a great question, but I'm not sure I know the answer. PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome. It's the word for the symptoms some women feel before they get their periods - like being moody or sad. I know some doctors and scientists believe PMS is caused by hormone changes during a woman's menstrual cycle, but I'm not sure if anyone knows for sure. Does anyone in class know the answer? Would anyone be willing to do some research on PMS for extra credit? No? OK, I'll do some research and see what I can find out. I'll get back to you in the next few days.
Whether to self-disclose is a decision that must be based on both professional judgment and professional comfort. You might feel comfortable disclosing that, for example, you have never had an abortion. But if the next day you decline to disclose, for example, whether or not you have ever masturbated, your students may interpret your refusal to answer as a "yes." It's usually safer NOT to self-disclose.
- Decline to self-disclose and explain why
- Generalize when you answer the question -- speak of what people do, instead of what you have done
Example of a personal question (that's also a value question):
Q: How old were you when you first had sex?
A: I know a lot of kids wonder about decisions adults have made, but I'm not comfortable answering a personal question like this one in a large group. Remember our ground rule about protecting privacy? I'm going to protect mine on this issue. The decision about when to have sex for the first time is an important one and families have really different beliefs about when it should happen. Some families believe a person shouldn't have sex until they are married. Other families believe that if you're an adult and are done with school that it's OK. You need to talk to your families or another trusted adult to see what they believe.