How to Build Your Students' Autonomy
caitlin Wahlers | BY-LA Health Educator
When teaching a sexual health curriculum it is important to know yourself and the personal boundaries that accompany this body of work. Understanding oneself is not an easy feat, as it takes countless hours of self-interrogation, reflection, and compassion to understand the reasons why someone pursues this field. Awareness of the self, such as one’s background, motives, and past traumas are essential for an educator to skillfully lead emotional discussions. Unlike basic reading, writing, and arithmetic classes, sex education is about the personal exploration of self, and this requires the educator to be aware of themselves and introduce non-negotiable boundaries for their class.
Non-negotiable boundaries are protections introduced day one within my classroom. The primary example of this is refusing to answer personal questions as it detracts from the students’ experience. As a Health Educator, it is important to remember the power and influence you wield. Educators both directly and indirectly influence the youth they interact with. Personal self-disclosures, such as age, race, sexual orientation, and background might seem like easy ways to build trust within the classroom, but one built connection may destroy another, so it’s best to avoid these compromising situations altogether. Additionally, answering personal questions can undermine a student’s autonomy. This might sound like an obvious statement, but answers to seemingly simple questions such as: “At what age did you first have sex?” or “What kind of birth control do you recommend?” or “How do you identify?” carry significant weight. When students ask these types of questions they are trying to understand what is normal, they are seeking permission for when they should be sexually active, they are looking to you to decide what contraceptive method works best, and most importantly they are judging to see if they can trust you. This ultimately undermines the exact thing you are trying to get students to build: autonomy.
As a Health Educator, my role is to empower my youth and encourage personal growth. When questions like these are asked in my classroom, I explain my role as a facilitator. I’m not their guardian. I’m not a doctor. I am an educator who cannot tell a student what to do or not to do. I provide information so that students can decide how to incorporate it into their lives. Advocacy and autonomy are foundational components of teaching a sexual health curriculum and if a piece of information isn’t applicable, or a student isn’t ready to apply this knowledge, my place is to respect their decisions and give them the tools to make healthy and informed decisions. By working within a sensitive subject matter, it is important to remember that the primary responsibility of a Health Educator is to create a safe and value-neutral space for students. This allows for the exchange of medically accurate information, while simultaneously encouraging students to explore and define the meaning of healthy relationships. If personal interjection from the Health Educator is incorporated, then the foundational components of the curriculum are eroded.