A chat with our educator Cathy Elliott

This is the next instalment in our series where we interview our educators about their experiences teaching, their thoughts on sex education, and just a bit about them. You can read our last post where we interview our organisation founders here.

For how long have you been an educator?

I have been teaching on and off since about 1988 and in lots of different capacities, in both adult and child education.

How and when did you move into sexuality education?

I think I began work in this area around 10-12 years ago, when my youngest child started school. I was really keen to get back in the classroom and began chatting to Justine who was teaching ‘sex ed’ at the time and thought, I could do that! Turns out there is so much more to it than just those two words.

Why do you think it’s important?

The information around all things growing up needs to be discussed with an honest, open and positive attitude. Informing young people in an age-appropriate way empowers them with the confidence to seek help for themselves when they need it. It’s often an eye opener for kids to realise that puberty is not just about physical changes, but mental and emotional changes as well. It’s a lot to deal with, so it’s so much better if they have support and prior knowledge.

What do you like about working with young people?

Their honesty, sense of fun and how willing they are to take on new information when given the chance.

What do you find challenging about this sort of work?

Sometimes what we teach isn’t supported at home by follow-up conversations, or reflected in community attitudes, and those mixed messages can be confusing for kids.

What’s the most satisfying part of this work?

Seeing the enthusiasm and sense of relief that kids have when they realise that puberty and growing up doesn’t have to be scary or daunting….a little bit of information and support goes a long way!

What shocks you in the classroom?

Not much really. Every now and then you will get a child that can’t cope with the information and they carry on, which can influence the whole grade. Classroom teachers, and the school for that matter, have a huge influence over how well these topics are accepted. I had a grade 6 girl hyperventilating into a paper bag once, that was a bit of a shock!! However, I find most kids wherever you go are curious and worried about the same things.

What’s the funniest question or comment a child has asked/said?

So many things are funny. One time when I mentioned the vulva, this kid’s hand went straight up and with much enthusiasm said, ‘My mum drives one of them!’ I thought the teacher was going to fall off his chair!  Another one was from a kid who looked very concerned and asked, ‘Should I stay home until puberty is over?’

What was your own sexuality education like?

Okay, ‘Where did I come from’ and ‘What’s Happening to me’ were shown in the school library (no discussion before or after!). I was given a book to read at home, but most discussion, right or wrong, was had with girlfriends.

Did you get any of your education from places you perhaps shouldn’t have?

No, I think growing up in the ’70s and ’80s there wasn’t the kind of access to what kids have today, so it was just the misinformation from friends. There was more a lack of information, especially around relationships and what to expect, there was no talk of consent, healthy relationships etc.

What do you think has changed around the culture of sexuality and health education since you were young? Are things different now?

Yes, a lot of barriers have been broken down around the ability to discuss diversity in sexuality and relationships. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have a long way to go, but kids, especially now, are more willing to accept differences in people. Also the idea that puberty is different for everyone; I think when I was growing up it was ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, so no one ever questioned things.

What do movies and pop culture get wrong about relationships?

The woman seems to always end up in a relationship with a man, as if he or she isn’t complete unless they are together. So much pressure!

What’s a favourite part of this work that you didn’t expect, or others wouldn’t think of?

I didn’t expect kids to be so engaged and enthusiastic about the topics we cover. I think with everything they’re exposed to on a daily basis through the media, kids are hungry for honesty and truth. Providing them with the correct information (age-appropriate of course) means they are more likely to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, and that’s very satisfying.

If there was only one piece of knowledge you could make sure young people would come away with, what would it be?

Find grown ups that you trust and who will listen to you when needed. Be kind to yourself and others around you.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

I like keeping fit and hanging out with my family. Food and gardening are things I enjoy, as well as getting out there, camping and exploring new things.