Letting Go of Teacher-Taught Sexuality Education
We need innovation, not renovation, when it comes to providing youth with comprehensive sexuality education.
The investments and commitments that governments, multilateral organizations, foundations, and other global health agencies have made during the past decade to provide adolescents and young people with comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) are testaments to its value. And yet, there is comparatively little to show for this invigorated effort.
We have shown, however, that we already know a substantial impeding factor.
In their research reports, toolkits, and operational guidelines, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNESCO, USAID, UNAIDS, PEPFAR, the Guttmacher Institute, independent researchers, and other leaders in the adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) field all concede the same thing: Having teachers teach comprehensive sexuality education is not really working.
The explanations given for this futility are consistent across contexts. Teachers lack the skills. Teachers lack the training. Making sure teachers have the skills and training is really, really difficult.
The viability of the approach becomes even more obscure when comparing what the experts have said about combining teachers and CSE with the readily agreed-upon international standards.
- “Teachers’ own attitudes, including biases about gender norms and their comfort levels for discussing difficult topics, often convey a message that conflicts with the content of a curriculum.” (UNFPA)
- “Teachers were less likely to emphasize practical skills or self-confidence in their teaching of SRH education than the acquisition of knowledge.” (Guttmacher)
- “Teaching soft skills demands personal and professional attributes that are difficult to develop through existing systems of teacher selection and training.” (UNICEF)
- “Even if a curriculum specifies use of participatory methods, teachers often lack adequate training to facilitate such approaches effectively, or simply drop those activities or the elements that are participatory and/or that involve learners’ personalizing information.” (UNFPA)
- “Students reported that teachers seemed unable to discuss sex frankly and responded unsatisfactorily to questions… Some students described their embarrassment at discussing sexual and personal matters with teachers they knew and found it awkward seeing teachers around school afterwards.” (Pound, Langford, & Campbell)
These are salient, pervasive limitations. Nevertheless, they are always followed by the same vague recommendations. Develop national CSE policies. Offer training to as many teachers as possible. “Monitor” the implementation of teacher-dependent CSE to help make it effective. At what point will we accept that there may be better ways for execution?
Continued reliance on a top-down approach for delivering CSE will only further divert and waste the resources of governments that are struggling to provide even basic quality education to their children. Moreover, it reflects the shortcomings of so many failed maternal and child health interventions before it: Disregard for people’s involvement. In this race to implement widespread CSE, has anyone taken a step back and asked what youth want? Who do youth want to learn from?
Rather than continued renovation of teacher-taught sexuality education—an outdated institutional model of CSE delivery—we need to harness the power of new innovations that operate outside of this inert hierarchical structure.
A new model for CSE delivery in Madagascar
Projet Jeune Leader implements a whole-school approach to sexuality education in public middle schools in the Haute Matsiatra region of Madagascar. This includes time-tabled sexual health and leadership classes, after-school programming, counseling services, medical referrals, and safe recreational spaces for young adolescents.
This “intracurricular” program fulfills the tenets of CSE, yet offers a stark departure from traditional initiatives, as teachers are no longer the critical service providers.
Instead, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are recruited for their dynamism and potential as role models to work full-time as educators, counselors, and mentors to students in their assigned school throughout the school year.
These highly trained, supported, and monitored educators strengthen existing school systems, providing not only CSE, but also a package of services (medical referrals, counseling, extracurricular activities, programs for parents) as part of an interrelated whole-school approach. Their work provides assurance that the right service is reaching the right population at the right dosage. It’s in their job description.
Up until now, we have been trapped in a “do-or-die” fixed and bureaucratic approach, perfectly summarized by the Guttmacher Institute: “The quality of the teaching [of CSE] ultimately depends on the preparedness, confidence, knowledge and skills of teachers.” Should this be our standard? Should adept teachers be a necessary condition for quality CSE?
Of course not. We should, and can, raise the bar. What if we intentionally changed the conditions required for CSE and the accepted norm was, alternatively, that educators will deliver CSE, contingent on their preparedness, confidence, knowledge, and skills?
Projet Jeune Leader is just one example of step in the right direction—away from further renovation of teacher-delivered CSE. Innovation is all about solving the problem of execution. Innovative approaches like this are attempting to overcome the barriers to execution of CSE, and ultimately, will allow us to fully uphold young people’s right to receive quality comprehensive sexuality education.