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See potential in every child

Today’s contributor shares how the idea that everyone has a God-given ability to succeed inspired her work as a special education teacher.

Conventional thought, especially within academia, can pigeonhole people. It says some people are bright or talented, some not so much. Some people are intellectual or artistic superstars, but some are slow learners or learning-disabled. When I was a public school teacher, I was encouraged to give instruction taking into account these individual differences, but not so much encouraged to see each and every student as having unlimited potential.

Through my study of Christian Science, however, I’ve come to see potential as just that – unlimited. This is based on the idea that God is divine Spirit and that we are each made in His spiritual image and likeness, meaning that we reflect the nature of our creator. So everyone has the ability to express God’s unlimited good in uniquely beautiful and individual ways, including through spiritual qualities such as intelligence and capability.

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This does not fit with the picture we see each day. But as we’re willing to accept our own and others’ real identity as spiritual, we come to see that our potential is not subject to good or bad human genes, bodies, homes or neighborhoods, and so on. All these are based on a material sense of identity. But as the loved spiritual children of God, we are complete and perfectly nurtured by God, forever.

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The Bible encourages us to exchange the “old man” for the new (see Ephesians 4:17-24). I understand this to mean putting off a material concept of ourselves that is by nature limited and accepting our God-given spiritual identity, which is unlimited. Learning to do this is a step-by-step process. But we can begin now and experience the freedom this brings.

As a special education teacher, I had a perfect opportunity to silently affirm the spiritual identity of students and to witness their God-derived success. The school system had labeled these students as slow, disabled, disturbed, and so on. But I always tried to remember that they were not really limited mortals but gifted children of God – intelligent, loving, and expressing every facet of God’s spiritual nature. Although our school’s curriculum provided instruction that was adapted to meet these students academically at their current level, in my thought the ladder of achievement for them had no top rung, so they were free to climb as high as they chose.

How did this approach pan out? Here is a favorite example involving four students who were placed in my small special-needs class. From ninth to twelfth grade I taught them at least two hours a day in reading, English, and various social studies courses. At the beginning, they were reading at a level that was five or more grades behind their peers. Despite this initial skill deficit, each one graduated from high school on time, and at least three of the four went on to become successful professionally. These students were diligent, loving, and routinely hilarious. I am so privileged to have spent four years with them and to have watched them knock down limits and low expectations.

How did their reading levels improve enough to reach these academic and vocational goals? While I did apply various reading strategies and tried to immerse them in stories, words, and ideas, I don’t feel any of that would have moved the needle to such an extent without their feeling something of God’s love each day and something of the spiritual inspiration and understanding of their unlimited abilities as God’s creation. I don’t remember ever talking with them about this. That was not my role as a public school teacher. But I always knew the spiritual truth about them in my own heart, and I think they felt that.

These students, of course, were helped along the way by other teachers, friends, and family members. But I felt it was such a privilege to prayerfully witness to their receptivity to God’s love in their lives and to their natural reflection of His boundless good. It was a joy for me to come to school each day and find God’s gifted children everywhere.

We can hold to the idea that we are not flawed material beings but the spiritual creation of God, who gives us the ability and wisdom we need. As we come to realize everyone’s boundless, God-given potential, we are better able to nurture that potential in ourselves and in others.

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Adapted from an article published in the July 2, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.