The American education system needs a lot of reforms but one aspect in need of reform that I never see mentioned is the classroom partner system. By this I mean the practice of a teacher asking the students in the class to partner up with another student for a project or activity. In fact, when I am queen of the world, I will ban the practice.
It may seem like a rather innocuous practice and in fact, most kids would probably rather have the freedom to choose their own partner than have one chosen for them but if you’re the socially awkward kid who always ends up being the one left without a partner, it’s torturous. I speak from experience on that one.
Every time the teacher told the class to find a partner I was filled with dread and discomfort. I would just sit or stand there awkwardly as everyone else scrambled to find a partner. I was never quite sure what to do with myself but there didn’t seem much point in trying to find a partner or in even pretending to try to find one.
Many socially challenged kids are bullied but I was not the kind of kid who was a target of bullying. I was just the kind of kid who no one wanted to have as a partner. Once most of the class had paired up, the teacher would ask if there was anyone who didn’t have a partner and I would have to raise my hand in shame, or worse, the teacher wouldn’t ask, and I would have to tell her I didn’t have a partner.
If there were an even number of kids in the class I would be paired off with the other poor, unfortunate soul who hadn’t found a partner. If there were an odd number of kids I would have to be added to an existing partner pair to form a threesome. That often involved the teacher asking the class if any partners would be willing to take me on. There were rarely any volunteers and never any eager ones.
A threesome in a class full of partners is like a three-wheeled bicycle; it’s awkward, it’s useless and no one wants it. I had one pair of students I was thrust upon explicitly tell me they did not want to work with me. The rest told me that implicitly. While I did have some trouble picking up on implicit social cues, I had no trouble perceiving that I was not wanted as a partner. My classmates weren’t particularly subtle about it.
Of course even without the choose your own partner system, I still would have struggled socially both in and out of school and I would have been aware that I was a social outcast. It did not escape my notice that no one played with me at recess or that no one invited me over to their house after school. Yet being the one in the class left without a partner over and over again made my social issues tangible, public and humiliating in a way that I did not appreciate and it did my self esteem no favors. It was like having a sticker that said social reject stamped on my forehead while I was on stage in front of a captive audience.
I was recently watching a Netflix show geared towards teenagers that featured a scene in which a high school teacher threatened a dawdling, misbehaving student with “Find a partner or I’ll find one for you!” I’ve heard that in real life too. For me that wouldn’t have been a threat; it would have been a promise of salvation. For the kids who did see that comment as a threat, being assigned me as a partner may have been the ultimate punishment.
I wish teachers just assigned partners as standard practice. I imagine the more socially adept kids would disagree though and there were more of those kinds of kids than there were kids like me. Of course kids would prefer to work with their friends but if you only ever work with your friends, that doesn’t lend itself itself towards making new friends or learning to work with different types of personalities. Once you grow up you can choose your romantic partner but for the most part you can’t choose your work colleagues. Being stuck with a bad partner for a school project sucks but it’s not like you have to to marry them.
Since I don’t have the best social skills and I’m not a very sociable person, Research Methods in Social Psychology would not have been my first choice of a research methods course but in order to graduate from college this summer I needed to take a research methods class and Research Methods in Social Psychology was the only one available.
The syllabus we were handed on the first day of class informed us that we would be doing a final project and that we had two options to choose from. Option A was an individual project. Option B involved working with a partner of your choosing.
I didn’t have to think twice about which option I would choose. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a partner and that was just as well because Option A was clearly the easier option and it was much more suited to my strengths and interests.
I walked out of the classroom that night feeling pretty good about my prospects in the class and about the project. As I was exiting the stairwell, one of my classmates approached me.
“Excuse me….?” she began
“Yeah?” I replied, a little nervously. I figured she was going to tell me my fly was undone or I had something in my teeth because those kinds of things are a part of my brand of social awkwardness and when a stranger stops to talk to me nine times out of ten it’s to tell me something of that nature.
My classmate cleared her throat and said “I was wondering, would you like to be my partner for the project?”