This post is from one of my fabulous sexuality summer interns, Katie Davis, about some of her experiences learned as a sexuality educator.
I spent the past year volunteering as a sex educator in the public school system
near my college, facilitating discussions on topics ranging from anatomy and physiology
to contraception to healthy communication. One day, while beginning a class on
fertilization with a group of middle school young women, a student raised her hand and
asked my co-facilitators and myself: “Do any of you have kids?”
The question made me pause. At 20, I was one of the older facilitators in our
group of four, but it hardly felt like the sort of question usually directed at me. The
thought of having children had only vaguely entered my consciousness as something I
might one day sort of maybe kind of want to do if I felt emotionally and financially ready
to do so. Furthermore, I’ve always looked young for my age–– it wasn’t until I cut my
hair off last year that I stopped being offered the kids’ menu at restaurants. So the
thought that someone might perceive me as a parent made my head spin.
I apparently wasn’t the only one who was surprised by the question. My co-
facilitators and I looked around at each other for a moment before one began to laugh.
She then replied to the student “No, none of us are parents! None of us are even 21 yet!”
The class stared back at us silently.
And like that we had lost them. We would eventually regain their trust and
respect, but it would take a while, and the rest of that fifty minute period was a wash,
with the students more or less ignoring us. We taught in a district with high teen
pregnancy rates: hence the administration’s desire to run an intensive sex ed workshop
for female students. Likely a significant portion of the young women in our classroom
that day had friends or close relatives who were teen mothers. And instead of responding
in a way that acknowledged their experiences, we made our students feel insulted,
ignored, and misunderstood.
I’m still traveling down the sex education path, and I still sometimes say the
wrong thing, but I’m learning. Above all, I’ve learned the importance of mindfulness, of
self-awareness. Recognizing my own positionality–– as a wealthy, white, cis-gender,
able-bodied queer woman–– has been awkward at times, but it’s undoubtedly made me a
better educator as well as a better student, partner, friend, etc. That’s why the #1 most
important lesson for educators is, for me:
1. Know the limits of your own knowledge.
It would be pretty amazing if everyone adhered to this rule, but it’s one that is
particularly important for educators/mentors to follow. Certainly, when a student asks
me a question to which I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, I’m honest about
my ignorance and I offer a well-researched answer the next time we meet. But it’s much
harder for me to recognize and accept that there are answers I will never know, answers
that are inaccessible to me. The very term “teen pregnancy,” for example, will likely
mean something radically different from what it means for a student whose older sister
dropped out of high school to raise a child. Knowing the limits of my knowledge means
recognizing that I will never fully grasp that latter, personal meaning. I simply don’t
have the same background, life experiences, etc. The best I can do is to challenge and
encourage my students to think critically and define the world for themselves. Which
brings me to lesson #2:
2. People are experts of their own experiences.
Learning is not strictly an in-class activity, and there is no possible way for me to
know what kind of education my students receive in their day to day lives. Great
educators know better than to challenge their students’ experiences of the world.
Rather, they provide students with a new lens through which to examine and understand
experience. Slowly, I am learning to do just this.