Why your students should never maximize their potential

In 2000, a new swimmer emerged in the sports world named Michael Phelps. He qualified for the Olympic games in Sydney and was the youngest American male swimmer to do so in almost 70 years. Although he did not win a medal, it would be obvious to think this young swimmer had potentially maximized his potential. But we all know better.

Michael Phelps went on to swim in 4 more olympic games, winning a total of 23 gold medals, 3 silver medals, and 2 bronze. After each Olympics it would be so easy to think, NOW he has gone as far as he can. Michael Phelps has maximized his potential. But the more he won, the more he competed, the more he swam, the better he got. His potential grew with him.

Thank goodness no one ever gave Michael Phelps a goal of winning 5 gold medals as his maximum potential. Think of all that would have been lost.

That is exactly how we need to think of our students. I was one of those parents (and teachers) who would say I just want to maximize my students’ (son’s) potential. What I was really saying was that I wanted them to do MORE than what they were currently doing. I wanted to challenge them to go further and support them on that journey.

But, I now realize that phrase, “maximize their potential” can be a dangerous one in special education. We all have good intentions when we say it, but are we really meaning that we KNOW what the student’s potential truly is? How is that possible? I don’t think it is.

As we expose our students to more rigorous materials, regardless of their challenges, we open up new doors and often tap into unknown skills. We are providing students with the stepping stones they need to go farther than we had imagined. If we do it right, their potential is limitless. And, you cannot maximize something that is limitless.

So, the next time you are in an IEP meeting, and you hear that phrase, “maximize their potential,” I challenge you to push back. We cannot possibly know a student’s potential, and it we try to define it, we are potentially crippling them from achieving something more, maybe even greatness.

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