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An Educator Increases Her Comfort & Skill With Answer’s Online Professional Development

June 17, 2015

Health and Science educator, Sussex County Opportunity Program in Education (SCOPE)

The fields of sexual health and sexuality education are constantly changing. Consider how social media and other technologies have changed the way teens form relationships and interact with each other or how emerging methods of contraception have transformed pregnancy prevention. Taking these changes into consideration, how can school-and community-based health educators be prepared to provide up-to-date information and answer student’s questions with confidence and accuracy? We spoke with Jessica Hastings, who has been teaching health and science to grades 6 to 12 at the Sussex County Opportunity Program in Education (SCOPE) in Delaware. She just completed all seven of our online professional development workshops and has a unique perspective on how our online workshops can help increase school-and community-health professionals’ comfort and skill teaching sexuality education.

I asked Jessica to share her thoughts about the workshops and offer some advice for fellow educators who want to be on the forefront of using best practices to teach comprehensive sexuality education. Here’s what Jessica had to say:

Ty Oehrtman: What changes have you made in the way you teach sexuality education as a result of participating in Answer’s online workshops?

Jessica Hastings: The workshops offered games and lesson plans that I use in class, PowerPoint presentations, short videos (with teens sharing their views) and many useful resources for parents, staff and students. I have also new, up-to-date information, language and perspectives for teaching a diverse population of students. For example, the training on LGBTQ Issues in Schools included lessons on understanding male and female gender roles, which was great. There are very few resources for teachers and students on sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender roles. This year we had a transgender student who was born as a female biologically but is male. LGBTQ Issues in Schools helped me create opportunities for an open dialogue about terminology, experiences and opinions.

TO: What advice would you give a fellow educator who is considering using online workshops for their professional development in sexuality education?

JH: I highly recommend these trainings. I completed all seven this year, and each one is great. The workshop instructors provide immediate feedback, and the online format was easy to navigate, well organized, self-paced, fun and interesting.

Each unit within the trainings also offered current information focused on issues and questions that arise in the classroom with my 6th-to 12th-grade students. The courses gave me resources I could use to look up many of the questions students have asked me regarding sexual health. In the course about sexuality and anatomy, the myth buster activity was an awesome resource. The pregnancy course also taught me new information, which surprised me since I have been teaching for 13 years now. Another great feature in a couple of the courses was the state-by-state sexual health data and statistics.

I now feel very prepared to assist other educators and students with questions they may have because of these courses. I also enjoyed using the discussion boards to communicate with educators from around the country; this is a great way to get new ideas and advice. I am looking forward to participating in the new online workshops that will launch next school year.

TO: What are some of the things you enjoyed most about your experience earning professional development credit entirely online?

JH: I enjoyed the fact that while I was taking the course, I could use resources from the online workshop to supplement activities in my classes and have my students learn with me. This provided additional teachable moments by allowing the students to feel empowered to help the teacher with classwork. This also modeled the importance of education and learning, even as an adult.

TO: Based on your experience participating in the online workshops, what do you think is the greatest advantage of online professional development in sexuality education compared to other ways of earning professional development credit?

JH: My experience has been relaxed and stress free. The quick responses to emails, grading and discussion feedback from the instructors made the trainings feel comfortable.

I was able to complete the trainings around my schedule and in a reasonable time frame; I had 30 days to complete each topic. Being a teacher and mother of two, flexibility is very important. Personally, time was never an issue with these workshops. They are so quick, interesting and fun, so the units went by very quickly. One of the instructors offered some advice that I found helpful: complete the pretest, and the first three units as soon as possible then the rest is a piece of cake.

After finishing the trainings, I do feel as if I had professional relationships with the instructors, as if I was a student in a face-to-face professional development program. The online workshops also allow for interaction with professionals from across the country. I have taken online classes before, but these are by far the best in every area.

Take all of Answer’s online workshops and earn up to 42 hours of continuing education credit completely online. Learn more about Answer’s online workshops.

Lessons Learned From Ten Years of TISHE

September 12, 2011

The training staff at Answer recently returned from co-hosting our annual Training Institute in Sexual Health Education (TISHE), where we spent a week training 33 professionals from across the country to be better sexuality educators. One would imagine that participants might be wary when they arrive at a remote setting to learn about sexuality education for six days and five nights with a group of strangers. But every year we have had the pleasure of working with passionate, smart and creative participants, who work in small towns, large urban centers and rural America to help young people make healthy and responsible decisions. Generally, these professionals are working with minimal budgets to try and meet the overwhelming and urgent needs of their students. These educators pour themselves into their jobs, recognizing the critical importance of sexuality education.

TISHE 2011

As a sexuality educator who has been working in the field for close to 20 years, I am always looking for new learning opportunities and have been grateful that TISHE continues to provide that for me every summer. Here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from TISHE participants over the past 10 years:

Ignorance is not protection.
TISHE participants have come from states with no health (or sexuality) education requirement, school districts with no formal sex ed curriculum and supervisors who tell staff to just “keep it under the radar.” At the same time, teachers struggle with pregnant middle schoolers, sexting scandals and students who are exploited by much older partners. Yet, teachers are not even allowed to say words like “abortion,” “sexual orientation” or “masturbation.” How can students learn when adults are actively trying to keep young people—and even each other— in the dark?

Money talks.
We’ve all heard this saying—but when it comes to funding for professional development, money isn’t speaking loudly enough. Those of us who do this work every day know the importance of staff development, but the funding, staff and time rarely align with what research and experience show is truly needed. We have had people take vacation time to attend TISHE or pay for TISHE out of pocket because their school or agency wouldn’t cover the cost. Others have been expected to perform their job duties while at TISHE, even though we schedule daily sessions from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This cannot continue. Both schools and organizations have to allocate sufficient funds and time for ongoing professional development for their staff.

Adults, not teens, are often the problem.
We constantly tell teens that they have to behave in certain ways in order to be healthy and happy, and even if they are willing to take the steps necessary to do so, it’s the adults who get in the way. It is so clear that young people want to learn about sexuality and adults want them to make healthy decisions. Yet how many adults deny young people the life-saving information and skills they need to do so? In some cases, this adult may be a teacher who is overly censored by a conservative political climate; in other cases, it is the power of one vocal parent that causes an entire sex ed program to be canceled. Yet far too many adults keep blaming teens when they don’t make the “right choices.”

TISHE has taught me that we as adults must recognize our role in that failure. This is why a key component of TISHE is building safety and comfort for the participants in order for them to receive peer feedback on ways they can be more effective with the young people with whom they work. If we are going to work with young people, we need to do the necessary work on ourselves to be able to do so comfortably, accurately and effectively.

We have a lot of work ahead of us if we hope to help young people become and stay sexually healthy. Over 350 TISHE participants and 10 years later, some of the same challenges to supporting young people remain, while new challenges have emerged. Yet over the past decade, one thing remains constant: we can always do better. In the coming years, TISHE will be here making sure youth-serving professionals are doing their best to educate young people about sexuality.

For ten years, the Training Institute for Sexual Health Education (TISHE) has been providing a transformative educational experience for school teachers, community educators, counselors, social workers, policy advocates and state department of education staff. Co-sponsored with the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and led by some of the most experienced trainers in the country, TISHE is a week-long, residential training institute that focuses on helping youth-serving professionals be more effective at working with adolescents. Based on the ICHE (Institute of Community Health Education) model founded in the Pacific Northwest, TISHE has evolved to serve the needs of school- and community-based educators who are all working to improve the sexual health of our nation’s youth. Although TISHE is held in August, it is usually full with a wait list by the previous March.

Learn more about TISHE.

Happy New Year

January 11, 2009

A new year and a blank page: both offer chances to shape the future. I wish health and happiness to everyone who reads this blog, and I also make a resolution: to help you teach and talk about sexuality more honestly, accurately and creatively with young people by offering you information and ideas you can use in your classrooms or homes.

The theme for this first blog of ’09 is teens having babies. It is spurred by the recent Today Show segment on the arrival of Bristol Palin’s much-heralded baby. The segment, titled “Oh, Baby!” and watched by millions, was led by Lester Holt, who interviewed a People.com reporter who covered the birth story. Both seemed to gush unnecessarily about the arrival of the new baby, Tripp, born to a barely 18-year-old unwed teen mom.


Holt made me wince when he agreed with Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that since Bristol is the oldest daughter in the Palin family of five, she had plenty of experience babysitting and was therefore “ready to be Mother.”

To make sure I wasn’t completely off track, I repeated the readiness comment to several colleagues at a holiday party later in the day.  These colleagues—who work hard at juggling issues of work and family—looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. One said “baloney” about the correlation between babysitting and motherhood; the other assured me that babysitting “deterred me from having a baby until I was 32.”  Both said something that neither Holt nor the reporter mentioned: Babysitting usually lasts for a specific amount of time; parenting is forever.

What message is the media conveying to impressionable and often vulnerable teens with this segment’s romantic, sentimental approach to teen motherhood?  Is the media telling them, “Go ahead; have unprotected sex, have a baby and everything is going to come up roses for you”? (Yes, I know some might be thinking: Doesn’t she know that Jesus Christ, Barack Obama, and countless other people were children born to teen mothers? They turned out pretty well!)

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The Demise of Dating

January 5, 2009

Charles M. Blow is a favorite columnist of mine. The art director of National Geographic magazine, he also writes a regular column on Saturdays in The New York Times. I like his work, not only because he uses graphics and statistics in a compelling way, but because he writes boldly and informatively about sexual issues.

Blow devoted a recent column to what he called “The Demise of Dating.” It was about the shift from dating to hooking up by high school seniors and college students across the country. There’s no need to get all hot and bothered about this shift in behavior of students you may be teaching, because Blow points out that it “doesn’t mean they’re having more sex or having sex with strangers.” In fact, he cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that teens today are having less sex.

I recommend his column to educators as a way to get students talking about relationships and values—an important ingredient in high-quality sexuality education programs.

“Gay Marriage and a Moral Minority” is another recent Blow column that caught my eye.  In it, he quotes important data for educators and parents from a Guttmacher Institute study. The data shows the following:

  • Black teens are 26 percent more likely than teens of other races to have had premarital sex by age 18;
  • Black teens have a pregnancy rate that is twice that of white teens; and
  • White teens still have premarital sex, but they are better informed about pregnancy prevention and use protection more regularly than do black teens.

You know about the digital divide and the health care divide, but you may have not heard about the teen pregnancy divide. It could possibly deepen during the economic downturn, when in all likelihood poverty as well as a lack of opportunity among poor urban kids will increase. As always, sexuality educators need high-quality training to support them in their work with young people—and our trainings are top notch.

Thanks, Charles Blow, for your columns on sexual health issues. And, please, in 2009, keep writing about sexuality, sex education and teen pregnancy in our society. Many are grateful.

Remember Larry

December 17, 2008

I strongly recommend that parents and educators read the Newsweek cover story “Young, Gay and Murdered.” It is a riveting, tragic, and gut-wrenching story about the murder of a 15-year-old gay student by his 14-year-old classmate at Oxnard, California’s E. O. Green Junior High School last winter. The student, Lawrence (“Larry”) King, was shot in the presence of a teacher and other students.

Central to the story is the crucial fact that Larry had recently come out at school and was killed by a homophobic classmate who had been harassing him. The school simply didn’t know how to handle the situation before it literally blew up in its face and resulted in Larry’s death.

What happened to Larry could happen again in any junior high school in the country—sooner rather than later. But denial is a comfortable state for many school administrators, board members, teachers and parents.

Recently, I told the head of a school for young female dancers about the work one of its alumni has done for college students with eating disorders. “Oh,” she told me, “we don’t have any problems like that in this school.” No problems like that? I asked myself, thinking of all the pressures on dancers to be pencil thin. In the same vein, I can hear middle-school principals vehemently denying that they have students as young as ten who proclaim that they are gay and then are harassed—and even assaulted—by classmates. Think again, I’d say.

Parents of middle schoolers need to talk with their kids about sexual orientation much earlier than they ever thought possible. They need to talk about the horror of hate crimes. An equal burden falls on the entire educational establishment—from the commissioners of education and state board members to superintendents, principals, school board members, teachers, staff, parents and students in middle and high schools. They must talk openly and frequently about sexual orientation and the policies needed to protect all students.

An Oxnard school board member best sums up the steps we need to take to ensure that horrible school tragedies like this one never repeat themselves: “This has got to be discussed more,” said the 48-year veteran member.

Discussed and discussed and discussed by everyone who is concerned with strengthening public education. Educators also need more training on these issues, and they can look no further than Answer’s outstanding workshops, including “That’s So Gay! Homophobia and Harassment Prevention in Elementary School” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues: You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers.”

But, first, please read Larry’s story and remember him.

Sex and the (Male) Politician

August 27, 2008

It’s safe to say that thousands of bloggers, members of the media and regular folks on the street have already weighed in on the affair former presidential candidate John Edwards had while his wife Elizabeth was recovering from breast cancer in 2006. You’re probably thinking, “Everything worth saying about this revelation has already been said.” However, I wonder how many parents have talked to their teenagers about it? And how many sexuality education teachers will be brave enough to bring up the subject when school resumes in September?

When I became involved in implementing sex education policy in the public schools in the late-1970’s, one of the arguments my opponents tossed at me concerned values. At public meetings they would ask, “How can you have such programs without teaching values?” It took me awhile to understand the broader meaning which I think was, “How can you have such programs without teaching our values? How can you teach about sexuality without specifically telling young people that intercourse before marriage is wrong, abortion is killing an unborn child, and homosexuality is an abomination before God?”

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Selling Bodies

July 31, 2008

I never fully grasped the extent to which advertisers use sexual imagery to sell products and services until I stumbled upon a Macy’s ad a couple weeks ago. The advertisement promoted a “Hot Summer Sale” and featured a beautiful model in a skimpy bikini sitting on a rock in a pool of blue-green water. A quarter of her bare breasts were visible.

Even more riveting about this image was the way the water lapped at the edges of the model’s bikini bottom. I actually wondered if I was seeing her pubic hair. Her left arm draped across her body while her hand seemingly touched the exposed pubic hair.

The image left little doubt in my mind that the advertising agency was using the promise of sex and a woman’s scantily clad body to lure customers into Macy’s for the storewide sale.

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The “N” Word

July 24, 2008

Most people around the world—a lot of children, too, no doubt—know by now what the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently said about what he wanted to do to two important, private body parts that belong to Senator Barack Obama.

The Times ran a recent column on the reasons why the paper did not use Jackson’s “n” word (for “nuts”) when first reporting the story. I was concerned with the column’s quote from a Washington state reader, who said that the paper is edited by “prudish kindergarten teachers.”

I beg to differ; most early childhood teachers are not prudish. The kindergarten and early childhood teachers I have trained are very familiar with young children’s body parts, particularly those that have to do with “peeing” and “pooping.” Many have to answer such questions as: Did her penis fall off? Will mine? What hole does poop come out of?

Not only are these teachers not prudish about body parts, many are comfortable talking about birth and babies. Kids in the early grades want to know: How did I get out of Mommy’s tummy? How do Mommy and Daddy make a baby?

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‘No’ Means ‘No’

July 16, 2008

I sat by a pool recently, watching a father frolic in the water with his two children, a boy around five and a girl around seven years old. The father, smiling broadly, would pick up each child in turn, raise him or her high in the air above his head and then let go, letting the child hit the surface, making a big splash.

For a while, both children squealed with glee, until the little girl landed, seemingly painfully, in the water. When her father reached out again, to repeat the activity, she called out, “No, please no!” But her father, still smiling, pulled her out of the water anyway, while her screams got even louder.

“No, no, no! Please, Daddy!” she called.

He whirled her over his head.

As her body hit the water, I heard her mother and several women nearby call out in alarm: “No means no!” He smiled back and said, “Oh, but she really wanted it.”

These are often the words that young women (and men) recount when reporting date rape or other sexual assault. Teen girls who’ve been assaulted often say, “But I said ‘no,’” and the teen or adult men who’ve assaulted them often retort, “But she really wanted it.”

The poolside tableau convinced me that we’d better start educating young people—particularly young men—much earlier about the true meaning of “no.” And by earlier, I mean when they are children.

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