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Education Teachers do their homework on how to teach sex ed

Jim Karkavitsas says any topic, within reason, is open to discussion in his classroom at Toronto’s Clinton Street Junior Public School. Below, the box into which his Grade 5-6 students drop anonymous questions that can kickstart conversations.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

A box in Jim Karkavitsas's classroom is stuffed with anonymous questions about sex.

The slips of paper, deposited by students in his Grade 5 and 6 sex-ed class at Toronto's Clinton Street Junior Public School, are among the tools he has to create an open environment in which to tackle this often difficult topic.

Ontario's revised sexual health education curriculum has drawn advocates and opponents, often in loud, public debate.

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But one voice that is often drowned out in the argument is that of the teachers.

The updates to the health and physical education curriculum, which includes information about sexual health, are the first since 1998. Advocates say that updated information is necessary in a digital age where pornography is easily accessible and children can get lost trying to wade through the onslaught of sexual information flooding the Internet. Opponents say information about topics dealing with sexuality are too much, too soon for children.

Poised, often uncomfortably, between angry and confused parents on one side and policy-creating politicians on the other, teachers are the ones actually facing children, day in and day out, in the classroom. They are on the front lines, the first to know what students really want to know when it comes to sex ed, and it happens that what they want to know is a lot. More, anyway, than what most adults want to tell them.

"Sex ed is the one subject that has kids sitting on the edge of their seats, dying for information," says George Kourtis, the Toronto District School Board's health and physical education program co-ordinator, with 20 years of teaching under his belt. "Consequently, it's the subject that teachers also like to teach, because they know they have a class that is engaged, that wants to learn."

Mr. Kourtis ensures Toronto's teachers have the support they need to teach the curriculum by providing them with professional workshops and seminars where sex-ed is dissected, discussed and disseminated to make it a topic any teaching professional can confidently tackle.

"Teachers need to know the curriculum and the expectations they need to deliver on, as outlined by the Ministry of Education," Mr. Kourtis says. "What you might believe in personally stays with you."

He adds: "Teachers do what they need to do. They can team up with Public Health employees and consult with each other in creating an approach. But the key is establishing a safe environment, a comfort zone where all students will feel at ease."

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Mr. Karkavitsas, the teacher at Clinton Street school, says any topic, within reason, is open to discussion in his classroom.

Mr. K, as he is familiarly known, randomly selects questions to be read aloud from his questions box, adjusting street words for body parts where necessary to get the students talking.

"The best questions are usually the ones that are the most inappropriate," observes the sex-ed teacher, who has been teaching the subject at his school for the past 20 years. "You toss them back at the kids, getting them to use the correct terminology, not the slang, to facilitate a discussion."

While he believes his students need guidance when it comes to having a classroom conversation about sex, drugs and other contentious issues addressed by Ontario's comprehensive health and physical education curriculum, Mr. Karkavitsas strives to be neither censorious nor overly sensitive.

His position is that he is learning from his students as much as they are learning from him. He finds out how they think and they discover how to have a mature conversation with an adult they trust will steer them in the right direction.

"Kids might ask questions that might not be appropriate and that's the issue here: Are you able to accept any question given you and answer it in a respectful manner that is comfortable for everybody or are you going to shirk your responsibility? I believe that if, as a teacher, you are feeling uncomfortable with the subject matter, then you are not teaching it properly."

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According to New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman, author of the 2015 book, Too Hot To Handle: A Global History of Sex Ed, schools are not well equipped to challenge "the power, immediacy and volume of all the things students see on screen."

But that doesn't mean they should give up, he told The Globe and Mail in March.

"I think we have to try. Schools' job is to raise citizens. Especially in this media environment where some people are getting really twisted and violent ideas about sex, schools should try as best they can to address this."

As a teacher dedicated to his profession and his students, Mr. K sees his role as encouraging students to make the right choices in life.

"I might not be right but I am willing to listen and understand. And once kids learn to listen and understand, they can question the world around them so that when they leave the classroom, they are leaving with confidence. Sex ed isn't about saying this is right and this is wrong. It's an approach, an ongoing learning process."

"It's about empowering students by helping them build the ability to make wise decisions about food, drugs, alcohol and relationships," adds the TDSB's Mr. Kourtis.

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"It's seen as a cliché, but it does take a community to raise a child. We have to be part of that community as educators."

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