Hibbert: Must trust teachers on health education

Teachers will do what is necessary to create safe and inclusive classrooms for their students. That may mean that they will draw on other resources and texts to teach students about consent, safe and responsible use of social media, LGBTQ2S families and so on.

Teachers are a dedicated group of professionals who are both on the front lines of working with Ontario students and families, and also accountable to the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and the Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession. Our core commitment is to students and student learning.

The Ontario curriculum documents, including the Health and Physical Education curriculum in the news today, provide guidance in what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade. These guidelines are prepared based upon current research in a particular field, and then vetted through numerous different stakeholder groups that include researchers, classroom teachers and parents before they are finalized.

In the more than three decades I have been in this profession, I have served on these review committees as a classroom teacher, as the president of my own children’s School Parent Council, and as a teacher educator and university researcher. While much of the research and the drafting of documents is complete prior to consultation, opportunity for feedback, debate and dialogue was provided.

It is important to understand, however, that these guiding documents do not comprise the entire “curriculum.” Curriculum is not only about policies and documents, but about the diverse knowledge, skills and experiences that our students and teachers bring to our classrooms. The ‘enacted curriculum’ – what actually takes place in a classroom – brings all of these elements together. Good teachers are responsive to their students as curricular informants; in other words, they attend to the needs of their learners.


So, let’s take a look at what this looks like in schools.

In the 1980s, I was approached during recess duty by a young female student in Grade 6. She wanted to tell me something. As our conversation unfolded, it turned out that she was pregnant at the hands of her father. Her teacher in her health class at the time was male, and so far, all they had focused on was dental health. She had no understanding of what had happened to her. The enacted ‘curriculum’ in that young girl’s classroom over that year now included a large group of students who became aware, over time, of what had happened to her. Whether or not it was printed in a document, it was part of our collective experience. The ethical standards for the teaching profession include an ethic of care for student well-being. As educators, how do we care for a student in that situation?

In the early 1990s, I was part of a suicide support team for a student in crisis in Grade 2. Grade 2. It was only years later, when we reconnected, that he told me that he was gay. At the time, educators were working hard to create inclusive environments and recognize diversity in terms of multiculturalism and differences in learning. Recognizing the need to create a safe space for students from the LGBTQ2S community was new. It was not part of the curriculum in the 1990s.

There are many more examples.

Belonging to the teaching profession requires a commitment to staying current in professional knowledge, understanding the relationship between research and practice and applying professional judgment to a particular situation as needed. Conservative estimates place the risk to the LGBTQ2S population at 14 times the risk for suicide and substance abuse, so this becomes an important equity and mental health issue. Students (and their teachers) need to feel like they belong in the community. If they are not represented in the curriculum, a different kind of message is being sent.

The Health and Physical Education curriculum which is being replaced, included information designed to inform and educate students about being safe, and about the reality of gender and sexual diversity as it exists in the everyday world. The decision to abandon it in favour of returning to one written in 1998 is, quite simply, a political decision. We cannot turn back time in terms of how our youth access information.

Today’s students get information from multiple sources outside of what happens in schools and in homes. While in many ways, social media is an important communicative tool, we know all too well, in Canada, the tragic effects of cyberbullying. In this #MeToo era, the need for education around issues like consent is critical to protect both our sons and our daughters. What difference might a lesson about consent have made to my grade 6 student? How might my young grade two student have avoided years of suffering if he had felt safe and included in our society?

As the Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Research in Curriculum as a Social Practice, I do not pretend to understand all of the fear and concerns surrounding the Health and Physical Education curriculum. It is clear from the media coverage that many who are outraged have not actually read the document. What are we fearful of?  Avoidance of the complexities and realities of sexuality and identity will not make them go away.

In health care, if a vocal group of ‘anti-vaxxers’ managed to convince a politician to proclaim that our health care was going to return to the days when we did not vaccinate, research-informed physicians would uphold their duty to care, and continue to vaccinate patients seeking vaccines.

In schools, research-informed teachers, expected to uphold Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession will use their professional judgement to ensure “respect for spiritual and cultural values, social justice, confidentiality, freedom, democracy and the environment.” In public education, teachers are accustomed to providing equitable teaching and learning experiences to students from families who hold diverse spiritual and cultural values.

Our school systems are usually preoccupied with achievement. One of the reasons often cited for the success of schools in the Finnish system, is the autonomy provided to teachers, and the trust they are given.

Trust teachers. They are professionals. They are resourceful.

Kathy Hibbert is a professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Research in Curriculum as a Social Practice.