Like many with an interest in education and pedagogy, we’ve been watching BBC3’s “Tough Young Teachers” with, at times, uncomfortable fascination. Many have commented on this series and how it highlights some significant concerns about placing young graduates in challenging classrooms with only a minimal amount of training. Being an “intellectual” with considerable subject knowledge DOES NOT automatically make someone a great teacher.
We’ll write more on this after the final episode of this programme has been aired. However, we feel compelled to write today about a classic example of how a lack of training and CPD can create havoc in the classroom with potentially lasting repercussions for the young people being “taught”.
Nicholas Church and Meryl Noronha, two of the “Bright Young Things”, were asked to deliver a Sex Education lesson to their Year 7 pupils. According to the television programme ,“All novice teachers are asked to teach ‘Life Skills’.”
Note #1 to Senior Management: The teacher’s chronological proximity to the pupils does not make them more qualified or more able to talk about sex.
Note #2 to Senior Management: When a teacher is showing signs of being unable to manage the behaviour of her children, don’t put her in the difficult position of managing a complex and sensitive situation such as an SRE lesson, with no idea of whether she possesses the knowledge let alone the ability to convey it.
Nicholas explained how he felt about discussing puberty in the classroom.
“Puberty and all that goes with it, as a topic, is awkward and sensitive. It’s just not normal!”
Not normal? Puberty not normal? Sex not normal?
He continued, when asked by the television crew, to say that he had no experience – “zilch” – of the subject (not the teaching of the subject – the actual subject) other than the fact that he had male genitalia. Meryl, for her part, didn’t even know the anatomy of the female and had to mouth a silent question to the camera crew when Nicholas told her to “deal with” the question of “What is a clitoris?”
This is not good. This is not good at all.
Note #3 to Senior Management: Would you ask a novice teacher to give a lesson on complex algebra if they had no knowledge of the subject? Would you ask them to explain the outcomes of the Versailles Treaty if they didn’t know who the victors were in World War One? SRE is TOO important to leave to people who don’t know what they are talking about.
When we then viewed the lesson preparation, another thorny issue arose. Nicholas and Meryl are both devout Catholics. They have, by their own admission, very clear views about sexuality, sex before marriage, masturbation and the use of language. [NB we have observed some fantastic SRE lessons delivered by Catholic teachers.]
Note #4 to Senior Management: Check that all teachers who are doing ‘life skills’ have a clear understanding of the difference between personal and professional judgement BEFORE they get anywhere near the students.
You cannot possibly have someone going into a classroom and talking to a group of impressionable and sometimes anxious 12 year olds, who are coming to terms with their growth and sexuality, who is incapable of keeping their personal views out of the discussion. It’s not appropriate for Nicholas to have said
“It’s open to debate as to whether masturbation is a good thing . . . should you always eat sweets when you want them?”
“You’ve got to ask yourselves whether it is right to do it”
“We know what the ‘bad words’ are but we are going to use the ‘good words’ (for genitalia and the act of sex)”
Neither is it appropriate for a young woman to talk about the aging process and whether bodily hair changes to grey all over the body by offering a guess based on seeing older men with grey chest hairs on the beach!
There were some positives.
- Nicholas took the trouble to observe another lesson in SRE prior to teaching it himself.
- He used the anonymity and distancing technique by giving the pupils the opportunity to post questions to him before the lesson rather than during.
- There was an opportunity for single sex sessions within the lesson but the main part of the lesson was carried out with all pupils together.
- Both Nicholas and Meryl took time to discuss their responses before the lesson (even though they should have been fully prepared for additional questions within the lesson).
However, the overriding feeling after watching this programme was that we must seriously stop seeing SRE as some sort of “add on” that any teacher can teach. They can’t. It’s a complex subject that goes way beyond imparting knowledge. Done properly, it’s the most difficult and also the most rewarding teaching experience, but it can’t be done without some serious contemplation, planning and training.
The notes within this post have deliberately been addressed to Senior Management rather than the individual teachers concerned because the teaching of SRE should be managed by Senior Staff. Legally, all resources used in SRE should be ratified by the governing body. We wonder whether Nicholas and Meryl were aware of that during their planning. Without a clear SRE policy these poor young teachers are extremely vulnerable.
More importantly, so too are the pupils they are teaching. Poor quality SRE teaching has long-lasting implications.
SRE is an entitlement for all young people. They’re entitled to receive quality teaching that enriches and supports their personal learning. Any teacher, be they trained in six weeks, six months or six years, who feels uncomfortable, inexperienced or ill-prepared to teach SRE simply should not do it!