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Teaching sex ed in Burnaby

As a furor subsides over inappropriate sex-education materials accidentally handed out to 13-year-olds at a Chilliwack alternate middle school last month, kids at Burnaby’s Marlborough Elementary School are learning about the birds and the bees this

As a furor subsides over inappropriate sex-education materials accidentally handed out to 13-year-olds at a Chilliwack alternate middle school last month, kids at Burnaby’s Marlborough Elementary School are learning about the birds and the bees this week.

Their teacher, veteran sex-educator Saleema Noon – who was not in any way involved in the Chilliwack incident – has provided workshops to kindergarten to Grade 7 students in Burnaby for 20 years.

Her company, Saleema Noon Sexual Health Educators, provides both sex education and empowerment daycamps for boys and girls.

The NOW caught up with Noon before her Marlborough workshops to get her thoughts on the Chilliwack debacle, sex ed in Burnaby, parents who don’t think it’s OK to be gay and more.     

How does a person get into this line of work?

(Laughs) That’s a good question because there aren’t many of us. There are a few different routes to get into the work of teaching sexual health. Meg Hickling, who did what I do for 30 years across B.C., was a nurse, so that’s what led her to focus on education in schools. Me personally, I did a master’s degree in family studies, with a specialization in sexual health education. My senior educator has a doctorate in sociology, and she teaches both at the university level and elementary and high schools. So, we all come with different experiences and different educational backgrounds.

Was this what you wanted to be when you grew up?

(Laughs) No, I wanted to be a backup dancer for Madonna or a teacher. When I was at UBC doing my undergrad and then my master’s degree, I was assigned to be a teaching assistant for a human sexuality course at the third-year level and was quite shocked at how little information these young adults had about their bodies. That’s what really got me interested in the field of sexual education specifically.

Why does the district bring you in? Are teachers not equipped to do this kind of work?

Well, that’s a tough one. Our curriculum right now, it’s called Health and Career Education. Sexual health education within that is mandated for all students K to 10 in B.C. But what actually happens in the classroom is hit and miss because, for the most part, although many teachers feel super comfortable and do a great job executing the curriculum, the majority of teachers don’t feel prepared; they may not feel comfortable; they’re not given good resources, and generally they’re not supported by the ministry to do a good job.

Do they get education for this in university?

Typically, within teacher education, the sexual health portion of it, if anything, comes in form of a guest speaker or one class devoted to teaching sexual health at the most. But, again, it really varies.

What work do you do in Burnaby?

I teach at the majority of Burnaby schools. And, at every school in every district I work in, I’m usually hired by the PAC (Parent Advisory Council) to come in and do an information session for parents first of all and then go back in and work with the kids, usually during the school day.

You’re a stepmom to two teenage girls. Is it easier to talk to your own kids or to kids at school?

No, it’s easier to teach other people’s kids for sure; although, obviously, my work has made it easy to talk to my own. One thing I have learned over the years is, you know, I feel for parents because it is such an incredibly personal thing to talk about.

What was the hardest thing for you to broach with them?

With my own kids? Questions around readiness for sex, I think. When I’m teaching with my own kids, I really want to be as sex positive as possible. I’ve wanted my kids from day one to know that sex is a great thing in most circumstances. At the same time, I know that sex is a very emotional and intimate experience, and I want it to be a really positive experience, and if it happens too early or with the wrong person, there’s a risk that it’s not going to be a positive thing. So, I find it hard to really create that balance between celebrating sex and sexuality and encouraging them to wait for the right time in their life.

As you know, there is a group of parents in Burnaby that opposed the district’s sexual orientation and gender identity policy. Do you ever hear from them when you talk to the PACs?

No. Compared to when I first started teaching, I have to say, that whenever I walk into a parent group, I expect the huge majority of parents to be totally supportive of what I do. They’re grateful to have me there; they’re happy to have me work with them to give their kids positive messages about sexuality.

You must run into parents who just have differing and opposing views?

It is so few parents who outwardly will say, ‘I don’t want you teaching my kids about being gay.’ When they do, it’s like, ‘So, are you going to teach my son that it’s OK that he’s gay or are you going to promote that lifestyle?’ And, yes, at that point there’s a certain point where we agree to disagree because I’m coming from a place of inclusivity and celebration of differences and knowing that our sexual orientation is not something we decide. It’s a part of who we are, a small part of who we are, and we need to teach kids that. And, if parents aren’t OK with that, I invite them to opt out and respect their choice.

What do you think about what happened in Chilliwack?

To be honest, it’s difficult for me to comment because I don’t know enough about the context in which the cards were used. Of course, a skilled educator will give information and use language that engages the audience and that can differ. What’s appropriate and helpful for one audience of 13-year-olds might not be the case for another.

Did you see the content of the cards?

I did, and would I use them in my class? No, I wouldn’t use them. But, again, it’s hard for me to comment because I don’t know who the audience were. They were kids in an alternative school, so maybe their needs were radically different from the average 13- to 14-year-old group.

But even in that case, would you just throw them into a bag without them being asked of you?

No, absolutely not … From what I understand, it was a mistake.

Is there anything that sex educators can learn from this?

It is important, if outside educators are coming in, that everyone’s on board and the information given fits the needs of the group.

Could this be some comfort to parents who may think there’s no limit to what their kids might learn from you folks?

I hope parents will feel confident using this as an opportunity to talk to their kids. I hope people were watching the news when we were discussing the whole situation and that parents can say, ‘Hey, what do you guys talk about as teens?’ and ‘Do you have any questions about slang words that are used?’ and ‘How would you feel if that happened in your class? Would you find that information helpful?’ It’s, at very least, a good conversation starter. What we don’t need to do is worry about kids losing their innocence and being scarred forever. That simply isn’t the case.