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Sexual-health educator says B.C. needs improved teacher training on sex-ed

Sex education teacher Saleema Noon says sex education starts at home, and even if parents oppose sex before marriage, they should give children the information.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Saleema Noon is a private sexual-health educator based in Vancouver. Typically invited into schools by parent-advisory councils, Ms. Noon works primarily with kindergarten to Grade 7 students, with her workshops intended to complement the school's sexual-education curriculum. Ms. Noon spoke with The Globe and Mail about Ontario's revamped curriculum, how B.C.'s compares and the need for improved teacher training on the often contentious topic.

What do you think of Ontario's updated sex-ed curriculum?

Considering they had been working with a curriculum from 1998, it's huge progress. I really appreciate their emphasis on diversity, sexual expression and identity. You can tell their goal is to offer a more comprehensive sexual-health program.

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How does B.C.'s compare?

We're doing better in some areas and worse in some areas. The areas that Ontario is really strong in – diversity, sexual expression, sexual orientation – they're addressing those topics as early as Grade 3. For us here in B.C., unfortunately, in our current curriculum, they're not addressed until Grade 6, which is way too late. We're doing great at naming body parts, abuse prevention and even some Internet safety issues at an early age.

B.C.'s Ministry of Education emphasizes that curriculums are not lesson plans, and that exactly what is taught – and how – is left largely up to teachers. Are teachers adequately equipped to do this?

You could have the best curriculum document in the world but what matters is what happens in the classroom.

The reality is our teachers are not sufficiently prepared to teach sexual health. They're not given adequate training, they're not given good resources, they're not given guidance and they don't have the support they need from government to do a good job. The revamped curriculum that [is currently being drafted in B.C.] is less prescriptive and more open to interpretation by the teacher. Unfortunately, what that is going to lead to is the minority of teachers who feel comfortable, and look at it as an opportunity, will provide their kids with more comprehensive education on the topics. But, my guess is the majority of teachers will not. And there is no monitoring of what happens in the classrooms.

How do we fix this?

We need more training; better, up-to-date resources; we need teachers to feel supported in teaching the sexual health curriculum. There also needs to be a component to empower parents to start these conversations early and to reinforce these messages, so that what our kids are learning at school isn't all they're learning.

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Some opponents argue that sexual education is a deeply private matter and it should be parents, not teachers, informing children. What do you say to that?

If parents were teaching their kids, that would be great. But especially those parents who are opposed to the curriculum, you know they're not talking about sexting over dinner. They're just not. And so it does fall to the schools. I want [parents] to understand that they should be their kids' number one source of information, and anything else that they get – from schools, or other reliable adults – is just icing.

What about religious arguments from, say, parents who staunchly oppose sex before marriage?

That's fine. Teach your child that. When I'm teaching kids, say we're talking about how babies are made, my next sentence is: "Of course, this isn't anything you have to be worried about any time soon, because it's for grown-ups. But we think you deserve to know the truth about what sex is so you can make smart decisions about your body as you get older. The one thing I can't tell you about sex is the rules about it. Who do you have to talk to about that?" And they say, "Our parents." Just because we're teaching them, for example, to wait for marriage, doesn't mean we can't give them the information.

You emphasize the importance of starting these lessons early. Why?

It's much easier to teach kids in kindergarten than it is for the first time in Grade 4 or 5. They go through a natural phase of their development where they're grossed out. They learn from everyone around them that, in our society, sexual health is still a taboo subject so they should be embarrassed. If you can start the conversation early, and in little chunks, it's going to make the job easier.

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What are some questions you've frequently been asked?

It depends on their age. In the primary years, a really common question is: How are babies made? Grade 2 and 3, a lot of questions about, "Do I have to have a baby?" Or "Do you have to have sex to get one?" Lots of questions about, "But what if two men, or two women, wanted to have a baby? How would that happen?" Even in the primary years I get the question of, "What if a boy wants to be a girl, or a girl wants to be a boy?" These topics are absolutely relevant and I'm so relieved to see that Ontario at least has it in the curriculum. For the older grades, a lot of questions centred around puberty changes, the "Am I normal?" questions, questions centred around slang words they've heard.

Do you have a favourite question that you have received from a child?

A boy in Grade 4 came up to me after class the other day and said, "Are you married?" I said, "Yup." Then he said, "Oh. So did you do the sex?"

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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