The Social Nightmare of Middle School

Yesterday, I had a middle schooler look at me with sheer fear in his eyes and respond, “A little,” to my asking if he was nervous. His angst came not as a result of a standardized test or a quiz, but instead because he would be spending the next hour having to dance with his female peers in front of an audience of parents.

A few times a month, I serve as an assistant cotillion instructor in Chapel Hill and Durham, and through it I have witnessed firsthand the varying social dynamics between middle school-aged boys and girls. At cotillion, we teach everything from how to properly RSVP to how to introduce oneself to multiple dances, as well as numerous other lessons in social etiquette. One impactful aspect of cotillion that we often forget, though, is how painful these types of social interactions can be for students this age.

Yesterday was the big Spring Ball that is held annually for this cotillion class, and though the dancing wasn’t being judged or scored in the least, this boy, who is usually confident and sure of himself, was visibly anxious. “I’m never doing this again,” were some of the last words out of his mouth prior to entering the ballroom.

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Credit: Google Images

How does this having anything to do with school? To me, it speaks to the opportunity teachers have at the middle school level to establish positive relationships with students in order to quell at least some of their social angst. According to S. D. Powell, “student learning will be more meaningful if teachers understand young adolescent realities.” Moreover, Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles outline the importance of teacher-student relationships in their book, What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know: “Teachers need to address young adolescents’ social and emotional concerns and identity issues through curriculum, school programs, and the development of a personal healthy relationship with each student” (Brown and Knowles, 2014, p. 34). These individual relationships are of course important at every academic level, but they are especially crucial during students’ middle school years.

Cotillion has taught me that teachers at the middle school level have an extremely unique opportunity: to greatly impact the social stability of each and every student at such an important point in their lives. I have aimed at doing this by intentionally building positive relationships with our cotillion students, but the amount of time spent with us compared to the amount of time spent with their teachers is far less. Students at this age place extreme emphasis on “fitting in,” but – believe it or not – they still look up to, value, and respect the adults in their lives, who can and should still serve as positive role models. Middle school teachers have the chance to relieve at least some of the social angst I witnessed yesterday, angst which hits students throughout middle school relentlessly and completely without warning.

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Credit: Google Images

This cotillion class is over for the year, but moving forward I plan to remind myself more often of the social instability, angst, and sometimes terror felt by our cotillion students at that level. My hope is that middle school teachers do this as well and, more importantly, act upon their students’ feelings accordingly. My hope is that, in the future, I know exactly how to respond whenever I confront this same angst felt by a student, whether outside of a ballroom or anywhere else.

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