CFLE in Context: Sexuality Education
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an educator. I would "play school" with friends for hours it seemed. I would always be assigned the teacher role and was overjoyed when I received one of my favorite childhood birthday gifts - a large chalkboard on wheels! I later became a tutor, a teacher's aide, a graduate assistant, a community educator, and now a part-time instructor at Western Michigan University and the Director of Education at Planned Parenthood of Mid-South Michigan. The path to where I am today, while very much a winding road, has brought bring me back to a fundamental desire to be an educator.
Although I swore I would be a lawyer someday, it was a Human Sexuality college class that changed the course of my life. This class opened up a whole new world of information that was non-existent in high school and too taboo at home. What I loved most about the class was how comfortable the instructor was with the information and that the content was delivered within such a natural, open, and positive framework. This large lecture class featured small discussion groups led by student facilitators once a week. I became a student facilitator the next semester and this experience solidified what I would pursue as a career. During our small group discussions, we talked about the lecture hall topics of the week. One week the focus was on contraceptives and condoms and all facilitators were going to lead an activity on "how to properly put on condoms." As I led this activity in my group, one student sat quietly but curiously at the table when others giggled and practiced--to varying degrees of success--the steps to putting on a condom correctly on a demonstration model.
A semester later, the student who had opted out of the activity reached out to me. She shared that while she was embarrassed at the time, she was so thankful that she learned how to talk about and use protection in our discussion group. She went on to say that she started dating a new partner over the summer and when they decided to have sex, she felt more comfortable talking with her partner and using a condom because she had sat back and observed that activity. She then disclosed that her partner had later tested positive for HIV. After several tests, her status remains negative. This individual was so profoundly impacted by an activity I had facilitated. She believed that the course of her life may have been different if it weren't for that human sexuality class. It was at that moment I knew exactly what kind of educator I wanted to be.
After completing my Bachelor's Degree in Human Environmental Studies with a Family Science concentration at Central Michigan University in 1998, I began my Master's program in Family Life Education (FLE) at Western Michigan University (WMU). I chose this particular program because it not only included human sexuality as a focus area, but it did so in a broader context of family life education and integrated a family systems approach to educating communities about sexual health. The FLE coursework at WMU, an approved program for the Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) endorsement through the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), led to my graduating with a Master's of Arts degree and a provisional CFLE designation in 1999. I became a full CFLE in 2001 and have remained a fully certified and proud member of NCFR ever since.
It was during my graduate studies when one of my academic mentors informed me of an open position for a Sexual Health Educator at the local Planned Parenthood. It was my dream job! I was able to design, lead, and evaluate sexual health programs for youth, parents, families, and teachers. The first program I facilitated was in a county jail and my most memorable ones would be in alternative education settings. I delivered presentations on a variety of sexual health topics for local schools, youth serving organizations, at college dorms and for community leaders and policy-makers. I wrote curriculum and facilitated retreats for parents and teens about puberty, body image, and sexual health. I also wrote a monthly health column for a local newspaper.
However, the most extraordinary experience in my career thus far, and one that incorporated most of my family life education training and skills, was creating an after-school teen peer education program called "Project T.R.U.S.T." (Teaching Responsibility and Understanding of Sexuality and Teen development). This program, which started in the fall of 2000 and is still going strong today, trains young people to become responsible and accurate sexual health educators and help to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among their peers. One of the peer educators' goals is to help people feel more comfortable talking about sexual health with their partners, parents, and health care providers. They lead presentations, workshops, and community projects in addition to advocating for social justice and safe spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBT) youth. This program is based on the Positive Youth Development Theory, which embodies a family systems approach to education. So often teen pregnancy prevention work focuses on individual responsibility and negative outcomes. However, this program focuses on what we can do collectively and positively as a community and within families to cultivate environments that foster healthy decision-making among teens. This includes working with parents on "how to talk about sexuality" with their youth, involving extended family members in mentoring opportunities, increasing access to health care information and services in often underserved neighborhoods, and engaging community members in advocating for medically-accurate, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive sexual health education in schools.
Other highlights of my career include: writing a training manual for Project T.R.U.S.T.; co-authoring an article about the peer education program published in the Japanese Journal of Adolescence; and having a peer educator join me in a poster presentation on Project T.R.U.S.T. at the 2009 NCFR Conference in San Francisco. I also became a Certified Sexuality Educator (CSE) through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) in 2006.
I have had opportunities to study abroad as well. I participated in a European Study Tour with Advocates for Youth to learn international approaches to teen pregnancy prevention and then presented on best practice strategies across the U.S upon my return. Additionally, I studied effective AIDS prevention campaigns during a Study Tour to Brazil with WMU and integrated lessons learned in programs back home. The best advice I received--and the one I would recommend to students and family life educators alike--is to take advantage of any opportunity to study families and FLE topics in a global or international context. The insight and self-awareness one gains are immeasurable and have enhanced my work with families and communities exponentially.
In the last 15 years, I have gained increasing responsibilities at Planned Parenthood as the Youth Program Manager, Associate Director of Education, and now the Director of Education for our recently merged affiliate. I oversee staff and programs across Michigan – from Benton Harbor to Detroit and Flint. My current role at Planned Parenthood requires more administrative leadership but in order to do this effectively, I still need a working knowledge of youth and families in the communities our department serves. I continuously seek to understand health trends and disparities; gaps in sexual health care education, services, and resources; and new ways of integrating technology and best practices into our sexuality education programs. Today, I do a great deal of environmental scanning, coalition work, grant-writing, managing budgets, supervising and training staff, and on occasion I still facilitate a training or two for professionals in the field. I serve on the Sexual Health Review Board for the national sexuality education organization Answer, Inc.; and on a Planned Parenthood Federation of America taskforce to edit and review sexual health education materials, websites, and manuals. I am also currently co-authoring the Sexual Health Plan for the state of Michigan.
I regularly apply what I learn from my experiences at Planned Parenthood to the classroom by teaching courses at WMU, which have included: Teaching Sexuality Education, Childhood Sexuality, Adolescent Sexuality, Aging Sexuality and Gender, and Culture and Families. For these courses, I aim to design or select relevant and contemporary course materials; prepare and facilitate meaningful classroom learning experiences that integrate real-world examples; and hopefully, in the end, inspire the next generation of leaders in this field.
While there is not a "typical day" in either role, the most satisfying part of teaching at WMU and leading the education staff at Planned Parenthood is the opportunity to champion sexuality education that is positive, inclusive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, and culturally-sensitive and then hear that this education made a difference in a person's life, in a family, or in the community. The hardest part of this work can be the limited resources and the barriers to effective sexual health education. First and foremost, I recommend that students and FLEs in the field learn how to write compelling grants and how to engage the community in creative partnerships and collaborations in an effort to share and maximize limited resources.
Effective sexual health programs are evidence-based, theory-driven and demonstrate over 17 common characteristics described by one of the great researchers in the field, Dr. Douglas Kirby. Successful sexuality educators are comfortable with the subject, examine their own values and biases often, and continue their professional development and training in the field. I encourage sexuality educators to become familiar with, emulate and implement these characteristics and work with parents, families, community leaders, youth and other stakeholders in planning, advocating for, and evaluating what is best in sexual health education for their communities. Last but not least, it cannot be overstated how much the designations of a CSE and CFLE demonstrate the depth and breadth of one's academic and professional experience as a sexuality educator. These two certifications, and related volunteer experience, are some of the first things I look for as a hiring employer in the field.
A mentor once told me: "Education is the gateway to self-determination" and that "sexuality is sacred, but need not be secret." Indeed these philosophies have captured my imagination and continue to form the foundation of my personal and professional philosophy in sexual health education.
Cherie Seitz, B.S., M.A, is a Certified Family Life Educator and an AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator. She is currently the Director of Education and Outreach at Planned Parenthood of Mid South Michigan and a part-time instructor at Western Michigan University. She is also new member of the CFLE Advisory Board. Cherie resides with her partner and new puppy in Kalamazoo, Michigan.