Sometimes I get students who come into my class saying, "I love math! It's my favorite subject, and I'm good at it." It's awesome when I do, but those students are definitely the minority. More often than not, students come in somewhat indifferent about math. Just something they have to get through, most of them with a mix of good and bad experiences under their belts.
Then there are those who come in with "I'm bad at math" oozing from every pore.
Some of them really do struggle, and for a variety of reasons. Learning disabilities, interruptions in their education, a string of teachers who made it impossible for them to learn one way or another ... But several say they're bad at math—loudly—but I don't believe them. Their work on quizzes or answers to questions in class show they have plenty of potential.
Says who? Says me.
Maybe they're holding themselves to an impossible standard of perfection, and anything less means being "bad" at it. Maybe it takes effort, and anything that isn't easy must be something they're "bad" at. Maybe they just don't want the image of being good at math (or anything school-related). Maybe something else.
Whatever the reason, I can't sit back and ignore the potential, just like I can't ignore the potential of kids who do struggle.
Observations like this got me thinking about potential as a whole, though. Like I said, I'm the one who's declaring an unmet potential in many of these cases. Unless I can get the student to buy in and agree that the potential is there, though, it'll probably remain unmet. I can force some small increments at the beginning, pointing out their successes to build confidence, but I can't force the level of self-belief it takes to achieve more.
I can see theoretical potential, but the student has to take control at some point to make it real.
Then I got to thinking about meeting potential. It's kind of a stupid concept, isn't it? Has anyone ever said, "You've met your potential—you're done"?
Maybe some superstar athletes, who've reached the pinnacle of their sport, achieved its highest honors (multiple times), and retire while they're on top. But even then, are they done? Or do they turn the level of potential they've reached to another target?
How do you meet your potential, when it should always be dancing ahead of you, just out of reach?
I may have mentioned before, but when I was in elementary school, everyone said I'd be a doctor. Not any particular reason other than that I was a brainy little thing, and becoming doctors is what smart people do. There are those who thought becoming a math teacher was a waste of my potential.
Was it? I'm the first to admit my academic pathway was not perfect, and there are things I'd like to have done differently. I missed opportunities. I made mistakes. But is the end result a waste? Maybe I just had a ways to go to narrow the gap to that initial potential.
After a few years of teaching, I went off to enter the world of deaf education. It added more challenges, maybe pushed me closer to that initial potential everyone saw in 10-year-old me. In the midst of that, I began writing novels, activating a part of myself that had been quietly lurking in the corners. Definitely a stretch.
I signed with an agent, and now I'm to be published. All while I'm still a math teacher.
Is this enough to equal my original "going to be a doctor" potential?
That's the wrong question.
My potential is what it is. What I do with it can't be quantified and compared to earlier expectations. It's not something for me to reach, but rather something to keep me moving forward.
People in my life help me see my potential, and in the end, I'm the only one who can decide whether I'm moving toward or away from it.
So that's what I'll try to do with my students ... help them see their potential, point them in the right direction, show them that its current position is something that can be achieved. All the while, making sure they know that by the time they get to that mark, their potential will have moved forward even more.
And that the only way to not "meet" their potential is if they refuse to move at all.