After teaching in Nashville, Tennessee for five years, then moving to Stockholm to continue my career, I am often asked, “What is the main difference in teaching between these two countries?” Though there are several differences, to me the most profound and rewarding difference is the opportunity to talk about sex to my students as their science teacher.
In the States, many people feel that these conversations should be left to parents or churches. However, this simply doesn’t work for everyone. Many students do not feel comfortable talking to their parents openly and honestly about sex. Many parents may avoid or put off these uncomfortable talks until it’s too late. When kids start to have questions, they may turn to the internet or misleading sources for information. I have seen the negative impact that avoiding this topic has compared to having a frank conversation.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We know that sex is on the mind of almost every teenager on a daily basis. They hear things from their friends, see things on the internet, struggle with their feelings, and even begin to experiment. In American culture, talking about these things (especially in the classroom) is extremely taboo. In my five years of teaching 6th grade science there, the topic of sex education was completely ignored.
I can imagine what people who know me are thinking: “Kevin Buckley talking about sex to middle schoolers? You’ve got to be kidding me!” However, it is something that I take extremely seriously. I try very hard to make students comfortable, then give honest, open, and scientifically sound information. To prepare, I spend time researching, seeking advice from other science teachers, and have even attended a workshop about how and what to say in these lessons.
The lessons typically begin with an overview of puberty as well as male and female reproductive organs (with realistic pictures). We then talk about what sex is and how pregnancies can occur. I find it important to spend a good portion of time talking about consent and how no one should ever feel pressured or pressure others into doing things that they are not 100% comfortable with. Students then spend time researching various types of STDs and learn the importance of safe sex. Also, for anyone who has known me in the past few years and gotten my “porn talk,” I even tackle this topic with students and warn them of some of the dangers associated with going too deep down this rabbit hole. (For more info, visit Yourbrainonporn.com)
My favorite lesson is on menstruation. Together, boys and girls talk in depth about what periods are, why they occur, and the discomfort they can cause girls. We also discuss why periods are considered taboo in certain cultures. I feel that these conversations help immensely to diminish the ickiness and discomfort that men often have toward periods. We even do a lab to test the absorbency of pads and tampons with red water; the boys are always amazed!
I end the unit by giving small pieces of paper to each student. They are encouraged to write down any questions at all they have about sex, menstruation, puberty, masturbation, urges, you name it. After taking these questions home and preparing my answers, I read each question out to the class and go over my answers. Since the questions are anonymous, students feel free to ask anything. They also get the benefit of hearing their peers’ questions answered, and knowing that their concerns may be the same as others’. When I read these questions, I am always reminded how important it is to teach sexual education in schools; many students have unclear ideas about many, many things.
Helping students navigate this intense topic has become the most rewarding part of my school year. With that being said, feel free to submit your anonymous sex question to Dr. Buckley in the comments!