What is this thing, “potential”? It’s one of those tropes that would no doubt feature in “FE lingo bingo”, along with “aspiration”, “skills” and more recently “Brexit”.
Some of us are powered by ambition to realise our potential. Some of us have vast reserves of the stuff laying dormant for when the time is right. Some of us, for a variety of reasons, will settle for less than we are capable of, ditching our imagined potential by the wayside to take a different path.
In its most optimistic incarnation, potential is exhilarating, giving us hope our efforts are leading towards a higher plane. At its least helpful, untapped potential reminds us of things we coulda, woulda, shoulda (but didn’t) do. If potential is defined as “options to build on” instead of “a singular destiny”, then disappointments don’t feel like a plummet away from full potential, but a new platform to explore new plans.
The concept of potential is a diamond encrusted tool to be unleashed at every opportunity. It can be a source of wonder, held up at the front of the class like a portable wormhole to a million future selves; it reinforces that these younglings currently have options to build a variety of lives, regardless of their starting point. Witnessing huge potential evaporating due to bad teenage decisions is heartbreaking.
Seeing the possibilities for young people
The saddest moment of my teaching career was when I arrived at work one Monday morning to learn that a gobby, ambitious student from a highly chaotic background had been arrested on very serious charges that weekend. It had taken a long time to nurture him into recognising that there was a range of futures available to him. He had options. He had potential. I’d like to think he still does, though I suspect the consequences of that Saturday night may have created more obstacles.
Sometimes laser focus on the idea of my students’ possible future, rather than the dodgy behaviour evident in their presence, has been my only incentive. When bequeathed with the occasional group that has one repeatedly wondering “is it worth it?”, potential is the thing that’s kept me going.
It’s the hope of what they could become once they get past this difficult stage – Courtney currently turns the simplest of requests into a cause for almighty rebellion, but I wonder how well the teenage Vivienne Westwood responded to instruction. And it’s true that Rhys currently speaks to me as though I am something he’s just wiped off the rubber sole of his trainer, but I can’t imagine John Lennon was an easy kid to wrangle. I know it’s a stretch to think in this way and you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…
So when you’re having a droop of faith and feel like phoning it in, remember the room is filled with potential. Slumped in front of you might be a person who will change the world for the better, perhaps in a ground-breaking, history-making way, or perhaps by making smaller but vital contributions to the world. They might be sitting in front of you, in your classroom. Messing about on their phone and giving you attitude.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons