After 23 years of teaching and 10 years of active union involvement, I have found that nothing can be more volatile to a teacher’s career than overstepping some pre-conceived sexual boundary.
As a union representative I have been required, on more than one occasion, to provide assistance to teachers facing disciplinary action for upsetting specific student sensibilities with words such as “masturbation” and “wet dreams” in the course of a lesson.
So when the Ontario Liberals made public their intention to introduce a new progressive sex-education curriculum, my professional anxiety went up.
Though we have yet to see the final product, the government’s objective appears to be to bring a 21st-century approach to the teaching of sex related education.
Should it mirror the curriculum originally proposed by Dalton McGuinty in 2010, Ontario students of all backgrounds and religious beliefs could by grade 3 be learning about homosexuality, followed by the concept of “romantic dating” in grade 4 and masturbation by grade 6. The students could be entering the realm of anal and oral sex by grade 7. Help!
Of course, we still do not know where exactly on the progressive scale this proposed new curriculum will land. All we really have now is Premier Kathleen Wynne’s highly-publicized endorsement to the inclusion of “consent” in the sex education curriculum – in other words a respect for personal boundaries in the classroom for students and parents who may feel uncomfortable.
We might all agree that our youth should at some point in time be made aware of romantic dating, homosexuality, and when and where intercourse may be appropriate. Where we absolutely do not agree as a society is when, where, and by whose authority this sensitive information should be passed on.
And while our government publicly acknowledges and celebrates Ontario’s rich diversity of culture and religion, it nonetheless seems to be running on the assumption that Toronto’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities are equally hip and cool with a secularly-inspired curriculum.
But just as our society is diverse, so too are our attitudes towards sexual behaviour, boundaries, and what sexual matters are appropriate for discussion among minors and their teachers.
This becomes a problem in the classroom since, regardless of what our government mandates us to teach, the responsibility of actually teaching the material to the diverse sensitivities of parents and students remains with the teacher.
And pity the eager young instructor who might naively interpret a progressive sex-ed curriculum as an endorsement to truly and openly “educate” all students equally on what the secular powers in Ontario society consider appropriate. Such teachers are at much higher risk of facing disciplinary action from their school boards or before the Ontario College of Teachers.
Of course, any new curriculum will likely suggest appropriate “prompts” and activities to help teachers through the material.
But no curriculum, however elaborate, can address the limits of classroom discussion should students ask for more clarity on topics such as masturbation, homosexuality or age-appropriate consent.
Regardless of what the government might assume, teachers can never own this responsibility if parents still think ownership rests with them. Not all principals are likely to support their teacher’s professional judgment and classroom decision making should they be challenged by a parent or student.
So until we can be certain that there is near universal public consent to a new sex-education curriculum teachers need to go slow, stick to the script, and save the detailed discussions and creative learning activities for other subject areas.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @nowtoronto
Robert Smol is a freelance writer and Toronto-area teacher with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.