A tale of three sex ed teachers; school profits from qualified instructors, but methods, ideologies differ
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Before any discussions or lectures, Internationally Certified Childbirth Educator (ICEE) Sue Simonson – who teaches sex education and puberty classes for fifth, sixth and eighth graders at SCDS – occasionally has her students yell out the names of genital organs in order to both break the ice and to make her students feel relaxed about talking about sex.
And though this tactic might appear unconventional, biology teacher Kellie Whited (who teaches 10th and 12th grade sex ed classes) and middle school science teacher Aleitha Burns (who teaches seventh grade sex ed classes) also allow these borderline “dirty” words in the classroom, and even encourage questions that students are often uncomfortable to ask.
“The main thing I wanted to get across with (my classes) is that there’s no question that’s off limits,” Whited said.
“I’m not going to talk down to them or belittle them,” Whited said. “If someone asks a question that is somewhat rudimentary to me, I think, ‘What would high school Kellie have wanted to know?’”
And during Burns’s unit on sex, she said she has her students sit in a circle and lets them ask any question they want in order to ease the tension.
Even though the three sex ed teachers have slightly different methods and ideas, they all stand together on the principle that information is key in any sexual relationship and regret the lack of sex education throughout the country.
In 2015, 41 percent of American high school students were sexually active, according to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (ReCAPP).
However, as of 2015, a minimum of 40 percent of male adolescents (ages 15-19) and a minimum of 45 percent of of female adolescents (ages 15-19) did not receive formal education about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or types of birth control, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a now-independent former branch of Planned Parenthood.
Simonson credits this lack of sexual understanding among high school students to the fact that sex ed is a low priority for schools.
“There used to be state grants where (sex ed teachers) could go everywhere, and it wouldn’t cost the schools anything,” Simonson said. “There aren’t (any grants) anymore, even though (sex ed) is a priority that affects everything in your life.”
Along with the puberty and sex ed classes at Country Day, Simonson also teaches sex ed at Sacramento State University, relationship classes at Kaiser Permanente and classes to pregnant teenagers.
Though she has made a career out of informing youth and young adults about sex, Simonson still views her work as more of a passion than a job. She said she loves talking with kids.
“My goal is to have the lightbulb go off,” Simonson said. “I don’t want to tell (the kids) what to do. I only want to give them good information and have a good discussion.”
Whited began teaching her to sophomores and seniors around six years ago, replacing speakers from outside companies such as Planned Parenthood. Whited said that the students wanted to know more information about the physiological aspects of sex than the speakers from the companies were providing.
“(The students) wanted more of a scientific background,” Whited said. “For example, they wanted to know what (specifically) would happen if they got an STD, and the companies were not used to tailoring their curriculum to students who were quite capable of understanding that level of science.”
In addition to including biological elements of sex, Whited also changes her curriculum every year in order to include the newest scientific research.
“We can’t ignore scientific discovery when we learn about (sex),” Whited said. “We’re learning so many new things about HPV (human papillomavirus infection) and, psychologically, how we view sex as a culture that if I don’t pepper my curriculum with (new information), then I’m doing a disservice to my students.”
And Whited said she tried to make the curriculum for this year’s seniors as current as possible by adding info about respect in a relationship, which she said relates to the Me Too movement.
Whited also focuses on the changing perception of sexual assault and actions that take place following it. During her class, Whited talks about how in a sexual assault case the victim used to have to prove that they said no, but now, due to affirmative consent, the emphasis is on the accused being able to prove that the victim said yes.
“We talk about how to make sure that your partner is as into this as you are and that you are getting a ‘Yes’ and you are getting it loudly and happily,” Whited said.
With the legal rules surrounding sex changing every year, Whited said there is a lot of false information and lack of understanding surrounding consent.
Simonson, on the other hand, chooses to spend more time with her eighth grade class on childbirth and abstinence.
In fact, Simonson said she was inspired to teach sex ed after speaking with teenage parents about their own feelings on childbrith and sex.
“I never had (a teenage parent) say, ‘Yes, I’m really glad I had a baby at 14,’” Simonson said. “Or, ‘I’m (really glad I was) sexually active at 13.’ They had a lot of regrets, and their (experiences) changed their lives forever.”
And hearing these stories from teenage parents, Simonson believes that in an idealistic world, everyone should wait until marriage for sex.
However, she said she understands that this is an unrealistic expectation, so in her classes, she focuses on preaching information rather than abstinence.
“When (students) do become sexually active, my goal and my message are that it should be based on the right information, at the right time, in the right relationship, without peer pressure being involved,” Simonson said.
Though she shares Simonson’s views of spreading valuable information, Burns is more forthcoming with her ideas of abstinence.
“I always tell my students that if you can have a mature conversation with your partner, then perhaps you are ready,” Burns said. “(Sex) is a consensual decision between two people.”
That being said, however, Burns believes that middle schoolers and high schoolers most likely do not have the maturity to have this conversation.
Like Simonson, Whited believes that, in a perfect world, there is logic to abstinence until marriage, but she also understands that the idea of abstinence can’t be the only method taught.
“We can’t send people out into the world saying, ‘Okay, your only choice is to wait until marriage,’” Whited said. “I’m not promoting underage sex. My message is constantly that this is a big decision, and that there are so many emotions that are part of this that you can’t think that this is going to be as simple as you think it’s going to be.”
Simonson agrees that sex is a complicated topic that can’t be brushed over lightly in everyday life, or the classroom.
“(Sex ed) can’t just be a book-learning thing,” Simonson said. “It has to (have) interactive activities and (needs to teach) respect – respect for oneself and respect for others and their choices. And that’s not just learned by memorizing.”
This idea of the importance of interactive sex ed is shared by all three of Country Day’s sexual education teachers.
But the luxury of interactive sex ed programs is not offered at all schools.
Sophomore Bill Tsui, who attended an international school in Hong Kong before he came to Country Day in 2016, said that there weren’t any sex ed teachers at his old school.
“In China, the sex ed was just a video,” Tsui said. “If you didn’t understand something or had a question, you couldn’t ask anyone.”
In contrast, Tsui said Whited established a healthy dynamic during her sophomore sex ed class by letting students ask about almost anything that they didn’t understand.
“If you have a question, I’m going to treat it with respect, and I’m going to talk about it, and most students take that seriously,” Whited said. “(Of course), there are always silly questions. (However), rooted in a silly question is always a serious question.”
According to Burns, silly questions are even more abundant in middle school. There seems to be, though, one silly question that is always repeated, she said.
“Every single year someone asks me, ‘What would happen if I had sex with a dog?,’” Burns said. “Every single year that question comes up. Every single year.”
And it’s not just the questions that are silly, it’s also the myths.
Simonson says that every year there is some new myth that is spread on the internet, so she ends up spending time during class debunking rumors that have no legitimate reason or logic.
“One of the rumors was that if (a boy) drinks Mountain Dew, then (he) can’t get a girl pregnant,” Simonson said. “It had to do with the yellow dye number five. It supposedly kills sperm.
And at one school I was sharing that myth to make sure they knew (that). And (a kid) said, ‘Oh, we know that, Mrs. Simonson. It’s actually the yellow Skittles that do that.’”
Though these anecdotes are humorous, they show the underlying problem of a lack of correct information about sex, which causes more work for sex ed teachers like Whited, who are not always sure how much their students know.
“The hardest part for me is that not every student is at the same place,” Whited said. “Whether culturally it’s something they’ve never discussed in their home, or their family sits down and talks about genitals at the dinner table.”
Students who are comfortable learning about sex, such as sophomore Max Kemnitz, still found value in Whited’s sophomore class.
“I learned a few new things, but I think that it definitely was really valuable for others,” Kemnitz said.
However, Kemnitz said that he wishes Whited spent more time on condoms and consent rather than the biology behind pregnancy.
Though the focus of the sophomore class is more on the anatomy of the reproductive organs and the effects of sex, such as STDs and pregnancy, during the senior class, Whited focuses more on the legal ramifications of non-consensual sex and the physiological element.
“(During the senior class) we talk about topics such as statutory rape, what happens if your partner is younger than you, consent and safe sex,” Whited said.
These more sophisticated topics are not focused on during Simonson’s or Burns’s classes because the students are younger.
In fact, Simonson thinks that the hardest part about being a sex ed teacher is keeping the class focused.
“Classroom control is the hardest because when we’re talking about sex, everybody’s giggly, (and) there are a lot of little comments,” Simonson said.
And though all of the sex ed teachers at Country Day acknowledge the awkwardness surrounding the material, Burns and Whited believe that their students are more comfortable talking to them because both see most of their students outside of their sex ed classes.
“I can go a little deeper with my seventh graders (than the eighth grade sex ed class),” Burns said. “My students are more comfortable.”
Even though the students in Burns’s and Whited’s classes might have a deeper relationship with them than they do with Simonson, eighth grader Jordan Lindsey said that she enjoyed Simonson’s class, felt comfortable and said that she learned a lot of important information.
“(I learned) the dangers of sex, and if I didn’t see (Simonson’s presentations), I might have thought that (sex) was okay,” Lindsey said. “I really like how we learned about birth control and STDs.”
And unlike the masses of high school students who do not receive education on birth control and STDs, students in all of Country Day’s sex ed classes learn about the reality and consequences of both. For example, during Whited’s senior class in February, she mentioned that there is an aggressive antibiotic-resistant form of gonorrhea going around this year.
Whited says she embraces such uncomfortable information in order to send the message to students that it’s okay to talk about sex.
In fact, senior Nina Dym, who hadn’t taken any form of sex ed class until Whited’s sophomore class, felt comfortable in the class due to Whited’s openness.
“Sex ed is something that needs to be talked about at schools,” Dym said. “Because Dr. Whited was so open to it, it became less of a weird thing. Even though I hadn’t taken Simonson’s class, or any for that matter, I felt just as comfortable in Dr. Whited’s class as anyone else.”
Burns agreed with Dym on the importance of keeping an open conversation about sex in schools.
And Whited tries to bridge the gap between students who know more information relating to the topic and those who know less.
“It is difficult to tailor sex ed so that those who know more feel like they’re getting something out of it and (be able to) reach those students who think that sex ed is the worst thing the school has ever made them do,” Whited said.
Senior Pria Nijhar believes that Whited gave information that was useful for the entire class.
“Some people don’t hear about (sex) from their parents, like me, for example,” Nijhar said. “I never learned about it, so (the class) was informative.”
Simonson said she believes that sex ed should start in the home.
“(Parents should) name parts right and answer questions correctly as a child is growing,” Simonson said. “(For instance), a baby does not grow in a mother’s stomach. Using the word ‘uterus’ is not a bad word.”
Whited agrees with Simonson that parents are hypothetically the best sex ed teachers for their children because they know their children the best and know if they’re ready to talk about sex or not.
However, Whited said she understands that not all children listen to their parents about sex and that some parents aren’t comfortable talking about the subject.
In fact, Whited said that she was raised in a family that never talked about sex. Everything she learned was from her friends and teachers.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to do sex ed because parents would talk about this with their children, but that’s not the reality,” Whited said. “If the parents are unable to provide that discussion, I hope it brings comfort to the kids that they can come to me. I’d be happy to talk about it.”
Burns said she believes that parents should make their own decision when it comes to talking about sex.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a parent what age to start talking to their child about sex,” Burns said. “I think that sex ed should be incorporated in the education at all schools, but parents should be able to have their kids opt out. Again, I’m not here to tell anyone what to believe.”
In fact, this year, one eighth grader opted out of Simonson’s sex ed class that’s main motive is to give her students sufficient information so that they can weigh their decisions and be able to spot false information.
And in addition to this because her students are older, Whited also wants her students and especially her seniors to take away more than just the basics.
“My job is to make sure that when they make that decision, it’s an informed one,” she said. “Hopefully I can help them understand how big of a decision it is. They’re going to know when they’re ready.”
In addition to teaching about consent and STDs in her senior sex education class, Whited added a section this year that focused on what teenagers take away from pornography and how it affects their relationships.
Whited said she decided to add the unit to her curriculum after reading a New York Times article that discussed how only 23 states fund sex education and, of those, only 13 require it to be medically or scientifically accurate (“What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn,” Feb. 7). As a result, many teenagers receive their knowledge about sex from porn, the article said.
According to Whited, she discussed with seniors how porn misrepresents a healthy sexual relationship.
“(In porn) it’s not about connection,” Whited said. “It’s not about communication with your partner. It’s usually a dominant/submissive relationship, or (there’s) violence against women.”
And Whited said she believes that violence in porn has become so mainstream that it has had a widespread effect on how women are treated in sexual relationships. Whited also pointed out that this sexual violence is increasingly used in movies and music.
“You hear children singing (lyrics) from Rihanna songs like ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me,’” Whited said. “Children should not know these lyrics.”
Whited believes her students need to be equipped with how to handle such a situation if they are ever faced with it.
“We talked about how (in a relationship) you need to take ownership in your decisions and that it is OK to say that you want to try something and that it is also OK to say you don’t want to try something,” Whited said.
“We do provide sex ed at Country Day, but (my students) might be going to college with (unaware students). So their ideas of a healthy sexual relationship might be skewed a bit because of their experience watching porn.”
Although Whited pointed out the negative effects of watching porn, senior Sahej Claire said that Whited wasn’t overly opinionated.
“The porn section was not for or against it in any way,” Claire said. “It was just about how the majority of people watch it before college, and it gives them a (poor) perception of a healthy relationship.”
Whited also focused on the unrealistic aspects of porn.
“Mainstream porn just does not represent typical bodies or (mutually) satisfying sex,” Whited said. “And it is unhealthy for someone to go into a sexual relationship with these thoughts.”
Because of porn’s relevance and pervasiveness among teenagers, Whited plans to teach this unit again next year.
“When people learned about porn (a long time ago), it was (through) stealing their dad’s Playboy and hiding it under the mattress,” Whited said. “But now it’s readily available on your phone or on your computer at any time.”
Unlike Country Day’s high school sex education program of two-hour classes for two days in sophomore and senior year, schools such as Jesuit High School, Christian Brothers High School and St. Francis Catholic High School have year-long health classes that incorporate information about sex.
Former students juniors Ben Miner (Jesuit) and Roya Pahlavan (St. Francis) and senior Aaron Davis (Christian Brothers) all attended sex ed teacher Sue Simonson’s class when they were eighth graders at SCDS.
Ben Miner (Jesuit):
Q: How was Jesuit’s sex ed class different from Country Day’s?
A: At Country Day it was more of a sex and puberty talk, whereas at Jesuit, it’s more about general health and how to stay healthy even after high school.
The eighth grade class was more informative than my class at Jesuit. All the students at Jesuit have to take (physical education), or they have to go through an online course, but it doesn’t really go into a lot of scientific detail. It just quizzes you on ways to stay healthy and (on) certain diseases. At Country Day it was more on what to look out for coming into puberty, because most people had no idea in eighth grade.
Q: What was the primary message of the health class at Jesuit?
A: The primary message is that health is really important, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. (However), they talked only about STDs very briefly.
Q: What should be the main message in a sex ed or health class?
A: How to stay healthy and that what you’re going through is OK and totally normal. I think the Country Day aspect was a lot more personal. The Jesuit seminar was more fact-based, and Country Day had more examples of what people went through and the emotional aspect too.
Q: How was St. Francis’s sex ed class different from Country Day’s?
A: At St. Francis there isn’t as much effort put into teaching the students about safe sex compared to Country Day. St. Francis tries to scare you into abstaining from any sort of sexual relations by showing you all the negatives that could possibly occur rather than teaching their students how to safely have sex.
For example, my teacher really emphasized how often condoms break, when really that is rare.
Q: Which class do you think you learned more from?
A: I would say that the eighth grade class gave me much better information. (However), the (St. Francis) class went into depth about the different types of STDs. (Also), eighth grade prepared me for the St. Francis one very well. It helped me think about things I needed to know about before eventually becoming sexually active. Even though I was too young to really relate to the subject matter, I think it was helpful to be introduced to it at such an early stage.
Q: What should be the main message in a sex ed or health class?
A: How to be safe during intercourse, such as using a condom, and the different options that are available like birth control.
Aaron Davis (Christian Brothers)
Q: How was Christian Brother’s sex ed class different from Country Day’s?
A: It is different mostly in its religious aspect. At (Christian Brothers), sex ed is taught by the religion teachers, which provide a more religious view than at Country Day. It’s not that I liked it; I just didn’t mind it. It (wasn’t) overly religious.
Q: What is the primary message taught in these classes?
A: It focused on anatomy and also what the Bible teaches on morality. It also talked about prevention of STDs a lot.
Q: What should be the main message in a sex ed or health class?
A: How to be safe. And I think that this is the main focus in the sex ed class at (Christian Brothers).
—All stories by Jackson Margolis