Leveraging partnerships with school directors to enhance support for sexuality education
Implementing comprehensive sexuality education in a decentralized context like Madagascar requires partnership-building at multiple levels, especially local. In fact, building consensus and gaining trust with local school directors is particularly important in a context where educational decision-making is decentralized down to the school level.
School directors have played an essential role in Projet Jeune Leader’s program since the beginning, when they provided critical insight into the perceived need and fit of the program in the education system. (Afterall, directors were the ones who originally insisted that PJL courses be embedded into the normal school schedules of their students – one of the key innovative characteristics of our program!)
As we have grown from a 4-school pilot project to a 20-school (and soon to be 45-school) program model, we have created new ways to engage in continuous dialogue and exchange with our partner school directors. One technique we use is an annual symposium – an in-person gathering to share, learn, and collaborate with all directors from across our partner schools.
The 2020 partner school symposium had a special agenda: “Engaging teachers and parents”. The goal of the meeting was to explore best practices among directors in creating awareness, acceptance, and support for PJL in their schools and communities.
We aimed to walk away from the day with new strategies to equip ALL directors – current and future ones - with the necessary support and structure to advocate for PJL’s sexuality education at their schools of work.
To this end, our dynamic young team led fun, interactive, and participatory activities throughout the day-long symposium to explore some of our most pressing questions for these invaluable partners.
How do school directors describe Projet Jeune Leader (and/or comprehensive sexuality education)?
During the first activity of the day, we asked directors to imagine they were explaining PJL to parents and teachers. We gave them two sheets of paper and asked them write down how they would finish the sentence, “PJL Educators teach about…”. We were particularly interested in what terminology they would use, and more specifically, IF and HOW they would describe “comprehensive sexuality education” – a term difficult to translate accurately into Malagasy.
The activity revealed that the way school directors describe Projet Jeune Leader usually falls into one of three categories: sexual and reproductive health education, youth development, or life skills.
Our later analysis of their answers also showed slight differences in their description depending on who they were hypothetically talking to. While most directors said they would tell parents that PJL Educators teach their children about reproductive health, many said they would emphasize life skills or youth development around teachers.
For parents, directors seemed to be more likely to express how, as a reproductive health program, PJL fills a recognizable need at the household level. The director from Talata Ampano middle school elaborated on this: “There are many parents that were not even comfortable to talk to their child about menstruation, but when PJL was there, then they became brave. In other words, PJL helps parents talk to their children about reproductive health.”
On the other hand, directors generally steered away from sexual and reproductive health language with teachers. It was notable that a handful of directors wrote down particularly vague, or perhaps even censored, responses for their colleagues. One said they would tell teachers, “PJL Educators teach about what is already in the 8th grade curriculum,” while another reportedly would say, “PJL Educators raise kids; they are friends to us teachers.” This revealed an important insight into the potential audience segmentation needed for our messaging to teachers.
Somewhat fortuitously, our second planned activity dove more into the sensitivities around dealing with teachers.
When faced with opposition, how do school directors defend Projet Jeune Leader?
Misunderstandings about the nature, purpose, and effects of sexuality education can fuel cases of opposition. From our experience, these misunderstandings are particularly common among teachers. Since directors are closest to this potential source of opposition, we were curious to learn what strategies and arguments they would use when it occurs.
The PJL team acted out a skit where, during a PJL Educator’s lesson on reproduction, a teacher walks by an open window at the exact time the PJL Educator says, “…the male inserts the penis into the female’s vagina…”. Distraught upon hearing this – albeit out-of-context within the larger lesson - the teacher runs to the director’s office to report that the PJL Educator is teaching students inappropriate information.
In a round-table discussion, all directors shared how they would approach the conversation with the teacher from the skit. Three main themes emerged from the directors’ responses.
From this activity, we gained more insight into what advocacy tools we can produce to support directors (e.g. accessible summaries of local adolescent health statistics, further documentation on PJL’s program impact data, framed copies of the partnership documents between PJL and the regional educational authority, and more).
Directors’ responses also further convinced us that they are best placed to respond to any potential backlash because of their understanding of the local situation and existing relationships with teachers and parents.
Our next activity, however, revealed that while directors already have strong strategies to deal with local, isolated cases of opposition, they do not always recognize the core and fundamental issues some people have with sexuality education.
To what extent to school directors understand the opposition’s arguments?
We provided directors with results from a 2019 survey completed by 302 teachers from across our partner schools about their awareness and support of PJL. We asked directors what they thought the “detractors” (those who gave PJL scores of 6/10 or worse) offered as reasons against PJL in the survey, as compared to those reasons for support from “promoters” (those who gave 9 or 10/10).
Directors were correct in their assessment of PJL promoters (that they feel that PJL has a positive impact on students and the school). However, they were more likely to say that the character traits of teachers and PJL educators perpetuate detractors’ negative opinions (teachers are just lazy or do not care about things outside of their own work; PJL Educators do not try to befriend teachers or are conceited), rather than the program itself.
This suggests that directors do readily recognize or admit that there are teachers in their schools that fundamentally disagree with the tenets of comprehensive sexuality education.
It is very possible directors’ characterization of detractors is accurate, but more common among those teachers who did not feel compelled to respond to our survey. Indeed, we were surprised that multiple directors said that teachers specifically do not like PJL Educators that are female. This was an important insight that we need to better support our female educators against negative gender norms which persist at the school level.
The activity also highlighted that directors may need more awareness regarding the common misconceptions surrounding sexuality education (namely, that it is not appropriate for young adolescents and that it encourages early sexual activity). With enough momentum, those misconceptions can translate to wider backlash against PJL.
Throughout the rest of the symposium, we further explored what ways directors and PJL can work together to create better awareness, acceptance, and support for PJL’s model of sexuality education in their schools.
How can we further enhance collaboration between PJL and our biggest advocates: school directors?
Through various break-out sessions later in the day, PJL team members led directors in intensive brainstorming activities on questions such as “What makes an ideal partner school director?”, “What are targeted strategies directors can use to preempt resistance in their schools?”, and “What individual responsibilities can directors and PJL take on throughout the school year to facilitate better awareness and acceptance of PJL Educators in their schools?”
Several feasible actions emerged from these discussions. The was a large consensus to shift more power to directors for integrating and managing PJL Educators in their respective schools. Directors also agreed that we can better prepare PJL Educators during in-service training with strategies on connecting with teachers. We made several other adjustments in our working relationships to further boost local ownership of the Projet Jeune Leader model.
Misunderstandings among teachers and parents about the intentions and content of PJL’s sexuality education program are rare. However, these types of incidents solidify a need to preempt resistance.
Unfortunately, there is a notable lack of research and discussion on successful strategies to create support for and overcome resistance to sexuality education implementation in schools and communities. We strategically capitalized on our annual partner school symposium to explore these issues in the local context in which we work.
Because school directors have always been among our “first line of defense” - those who directly respond to opposition from parents and teachers – they provided a wealth of information and insight about their informal advocacy strategies. We left with a better understanding of what assets directors already bring to the table, as well as what support and structure is still needed to boost their capacity and legitimacy as Projet Jeune Leader advocates.
By leveraging our close relationships with school directors, we can create more collaborative, impactful, and sustainable support for comprehensive sexuality education at the school and community levels in Madagascar.