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RSE with confidence: let your students do the talking

Posted on: March 23, 2021

By Leah Jewett, co-author of Sex Ed on the Cards: Changing the Conversation around Sex, Bodies, Consent and Relationships, a fun, factual and LGBTQ+ inclusive resource for teachers delivering RSE to students aged 14+​

In this short article, Leah discusses how to approach relationships and sex education with confidence and overcome three common classroom challenges.

It’s not just parents who need upskilling on how to approach relationships and sex education (RSE) topics – often teachers also need to acquire the vocabulary, tools and confidence to talk openly with children and young people. They need to learn how to start the conversation. As with parents, teachers generally didn’t have families that talked openly at home. As with parents, teachers can experience pushback from digital natives for whom managing exposure to porn, sexting and online pressures comes with the territory. As with parents, teachers often have to get past their own barriers to talking openly such as embarrassment, shame or a perceived need to know all the facts.

Furthermore, teachers who grew up or were trained under the shadow of Section 28 – when from 1988 to 2003 the “promotion of homosexuality” was illegal – the mind shift required to deliver good RSE shouldn’t be underestimated, as Dougie Boyd, director of education at the charity Brook, pointed out during this January’s Westminster Education Forum conference on RSE, adding: “In 18 years as a secondary-school teacher I never once mentioned gay issues or being gay. For many teachers, being comfortable talking about sexuality will take a huge amount of unravelling.”

Luckily the times when teachers would stand and deliver at the front of a classroom are changing. Child-centred educational approaches see young people both reverse-mentoring their teachers and educating their peers, which means that the sometimes complex job of conveying sex-ed information doesn’t now rest entirely with teachers. By breaking the ice with Sex Ed on the Cards: Changing the Conversation around Sex, Bodies, Consent and Relationships they can let their students do the talking. 

Unlike health education, sex ed is not an exact science. There are blurred lines and no easy answers. But there are strategies for surmounting common classroom challenges…

RSE Blog 1

1. What if I can’t answer someone’s question? 

A teacher isn’t a walking Wikipedia. Your admitting “I don’t know” gives young people permission also not to know. You could reply: “Great question – I’ll investigate and circle back to that next time”; you could role-model media-literacy skills by saying: “Let’s search that up” then consult a reliable resource such as Brook or Scarleteen on the spot; you could use the room and ask: “What does everybody else think?” – and gauge students’ levels of understanding as an informal needs assessment.

RSE Blog 1

2. What if it’s awkward and nobody speaks up?

Keep in mind that your captive student audience has a desire and need for RSE. Even though in RSE lessons some kids might go on the offensive, giggle or want to hide, schools are actually young people’s preferred choice for learning about sex and relationships, according to the Sex Education Forum. As health teacher Kim Cook points out in an Outspoken Sex Ed blog post about her time in secondary-school classrooms: “All that the kids wanted to talk about was sex – so if you can link even learning about the respiratory system to sex, they will listen.”

Change tack if you’re met by silence, and find a new way for students to contribute. Playing Sex Ed on the Cards can animate students by giving them something physical to do and participating in smaller groups can bring quieter students out of their shell. Not all young people engage in the same way, and the three modes of play – Competition, Collaboration, Conversation – as well as the three kinds of cards – Debate, Question and Challenge – provoke discussion in different ways.

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3. What if my personal life becomes the focus?

Intrusive questions might be meant to rile you up, wrongfoot you or get a laugh, but just as young people shouldn’t share anything personal about themselves in class, you shouldn’t either. Say: “Personal questions are off limits” and remind them of the ground rules set out in Sex Ed on the Cards (aka ROCK – Respect others; Openness and opting out; Confidentiality; Kindness). 

It’s vital to create a safe space. Playing a game with hypothetical scenarios is a classic distancing technique – a way for students to enter into conversations that are anonymous, confidential and not about them. 

If someone asks you: “Do you like sex?”, deflect the question by flipping your answer: “Let’s reframe that. Why do people like sex?”

As with parents, teachers can negotiate difficult sex-ed terrain by practising saying tricky words out loud, comparing notes with peers and just forging ahead. The more we all brave talking about sex-ed topics, the more natural it becomes.

Sex Ed on the Cards by Sophie Manning and Leah Jewett

Sex Ed on the Cards

If you found this article useful then take a look at Sex Ed on the Cards, an interactive card game that helps support RSE for students aged 14+​. With 3 modes of game play – conversation, collaboration and competition – the cards allow young people to explore their attitudes, beliefs and values around key topics including body image, consent and gender identity.

"This card game is fun, thought-provoking and refreshing! It will foster discussion and debate around sexual health topics relevant to today’s society in an inclusive and thoughtful way. Would strongly recommend Sex Ed on the Cards to enhance any relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum."​ Dr Naomi Sutton, Consultant Physician at the Integrated Sexual Health Services, The Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust and TV doctor on E4’s The Sex Clinic.

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