Sunday, May 23, 2010

NY Teacher’s Experience a Reminder of the Challenges of Teaching Sex Education « SpeakEasy

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Sometimes it seems like conducting a classroom lesson on sex education is a landmine with wrong steps possible at every turn. Take the experience of Faith Kramer, an 8th grade teacher from Staten Island, NY. In 2008, this 26-year teaching vet was removed from her classroom after the Department of Education claimed that she had violated a regulation prohibiting verbal abuse, or the use of language that could cause “fear, physical or mental distress,” and charged her with using corporal punishment for doing so.

So what did Kramer do or say to her students? Nothing really. It seems she simply followed state guidelines on teaching about about HIV.

As the New York Times reports,

On Feb. 6, 2008, the teacher, Faith Kramer, a health and physical education teacher at Intermediate School 72 on Staten Island, taught a state-mandated lesson on the various behaviors that can transmit H.I.V./AIDS. According to legal documents filed with the case, she wrote down the polite words for sexual organs, sexual acts and bodily fluids on the board — and then asked her students to list any other terms they might know for those things. {According to a judge reviewing the case] in doing so, she appeared to be following the spirit of a state syllabus that directed that students be encouraged to use sexual terms that they understood, so that they could relate those words to the more formal terminology. “If students use different terms,” the syllabus says, “make sure they understand the relationship between both sets of terms.”

Apparently, the principal who requested an investigation, and the Department of Education which conducted it, weren’t exactly up to date on those curriculum guidelines. As a result, Kramer was taken out of the classroom for over six months and sent to an administrative detention center before she was able to resume her duties. Now–in a case that a federal judge decided could proceed despite the city’s attempts to dismiss it–Kramer is seeking damages for mental anguish, lawyer’s fees and the loss of extra after-school work,

As someone who teaches sex ed, I have to say, Kramer’s experience does sound pretty mentally anguishing. Talking frankly with teens about sex is challenging. Obviously, it is important to be sensitive, careful and appropriate when doing so. But, you also have to be clear and make sure that kids know what you are saying, even if that means clearing up misconceptions by using language that doesn’t often get used in other classes. You don’t want to have one missed word render an entire lesson meaningless, say, by telling a student to avoid getting a partner’s ejaculate into their vagina during intercourse, when the only words they know in this context are cum, coochie, and screwing.

Both this teacher, and state mandated curriculum seem to get this. Too bad that principals like Kramer’s, not to mention, the New York City Department of Education, don’t.

Ellen Friedrichs runs the GLBT Teens Site at She also teaches middle and high school health education and human sexuality at Brooklyn College.