Do We See the Beauty in Every Student?

Beauty in Students quote

As many of us prepare for the start of a new year, I can’t help but think of the students who will drop-out, work instead of go to college, be placed in a juvenile detention center, go to jail, fail, attend alternative schools, or be on welfare. Somewhere along the way a parent, teacher, politician, and community failed them.  In most cases, it was all these stakeholders who failed them.

When I see a defeated student walk into my room I wonder at what age someone made them feel like they could not succeed. At what age did an adult call them stupid, an idiot, or declare that child could not accomplish a dream? At what age did these children have their dreams shattered? At what age did this child embrace failure and wear it like a security blanket?

Seeing the Ugly

I would love to believe all educators enter our field full of compassion for every student. I would love to believe each teacher, administrator, librarian, and counselor entered the profession full of passion. My experience paints a dark reality. I have worked in several low-income schools, alternative schools, homeless shelters, and juvenile detention centers in a major US city. I volunteered to teach reading at the middle school that had the 2nd lowest reading average in Texas. I ran creative writing programs for several at risk schools in my city. I remember the first time walking into one of the 6th grade classrooms. The teacher was cursing at her students and yelling that they were too stupid to do anything. She was upset by the fact that none of them were making a higher grade than a 74 in her class. Only the ones who were passing could attend my monthly creative writing workshop. I was disgusted by this teacher. I wish I could tell you that was the last time I had this feeling of disgust. It wasn’t. I remember then taking her students to a separate class and teaching them some poetic forms. I encouraged the students to do free writing. One student wrote about the peer pressure of having a baby with her boyfriend. She was 12 years-old. Another student was sad for his brother who was in jail for shooting an entire family at a convenience store. Another student wrote about his drug addicted mom. Each piece of writing was tragic and made me recall what I struggled with as a 12 year-old. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to have been able to just be 12. None of these students had this experience and the reality is that many of them were the ones who dropped out of high school, went to jail, got pregnant as teenagers, joined gangs or went on welfare.

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. ~ Confucius

How many students walk into a class and are labeled as trouble or bad? How many times have you heard teachers say something like, “Oh I hope he’s not in my class!”? How many of us see a kid with piercings, bad hygiene, or questionable style and form our opinions? Perhaps, I’m preaching to the choir and the sad reality is that the teachers who don’t care will not be the ones reading this post or any like this one. However, I think we need to find a way to stop this. We all need to dig deeper, especially with the troubled ones. They obviously act out for a reason.

The Reality

The problem is that there are too many students who feel more comfortable with failure. Just look at these statistics from 2007 (most recent statistics available):

Consider the drop-out rate in your country. How many thousands or millions of students drop-out each year, are unemployed, or on welfare? With the current worldwide economic crisis can we really choose to ignore the impacts of our failing education systems?

Yet, that is what politicians in governments around the world do as well as the communities that place them in office. I have studied the rates for the US and in decades we improve the statistics by less than 10 %. In some countries, the statistics do not improve. Unfortunately, these millions of students who are embracing failure are the same ones that an adult could not see the beauty, only the ugly. I have seen schools with high drop-out rates and illiteracy rates. The majority of their student population consist of students who people write off and never see in them beauty or hope.

And maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be~ Man of La Mancha

I know there is no simple solution, but we have to aim to improve the system. We have to find a way to stop failing millions of students every year. With social media we have a voice and a forum. Millions are online and daily we see the impact of how news goes viral. We can use this to our advantage. We can organize and form grassroots movements. Each of us can step into our institutions and convince at least a few to join our Personal/ Passionate Learning Networks (PLNs). We can get them to join the conversation and question the way they teach and see students. Our PLN can pass on the passion. We need to be mad. We need see education as it should be and stop thinking we cannot change the system. Yes, we are blamed, rarely listened to, and inundated with a tireless amount of work. There is every excuse not to step up, act, and change the system. That is why we need to be mad, angry, disgusted, and raise our fists at the current education system.


Be disgusted and begin to find a way to change the system.

Do you know of any ways we can collectively collaborate and change the current education system? What are your suggestions or projects?

Image adapted from a Flickr image by Pink Sherbert Photography/ CC Attribution 2.0

Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, an international speaker/consultant, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning with EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, and Learning to Go. She has trained teachers and taught English language learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert by organizations, like the US Embassy, UNESCO Bangkok, Cultura Inglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, ISTEK Turkey, and Venezuela TESOL. She has been recognized by several organizations and publications as a leader in the movement of teacher driven professional development as the founder and organizer of various online conferences, Twitter chats, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Two of the projects she co-organized were shortlisted for ELTons, #ELTChat and the Virtual Round Table Language and Technology online conference. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women, awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, and named as one of the 10 Most Influential People in EdTech by Tech & Learning. Her greatest joy is being the mother of baby Savannah and Rosco the pug. Shelly has an Honors BA in English with a Minor in Communication and a specialization in Electronic Media from UTSA, a Masters in Curriculum Instruction ESL from the University of Phoenix, and a CELTA from CELT Athens. She regularly shares her tips for effective technology integration via Twitter (@ShellTerrell),, and on her blog,, which has won several awards and recognitions as one of the top ESL, Edtech and Elearning blogs. Find over 400 of her slide presentations at


  1. A brilliant post Shelly. I too often see colleagues dismissing students because of appearances, etc. as you mentioned. I’ve always prided myself in seeing the child underneath that, encouraging as much as possible and showing that I have high expectations of that student and I show that I know they are going to reach them. Mostly they do. Sometimes other things get in the way, like they move interstate. But I hope there is someone else who also sees beyond the issues and sees the humanity of the child.

    • Judith,
      It’s teachers with passion like you and those who can look beyond that help these students believe in themselves. It only takes one great teacher to begin the healing process.

  2. Thank you for a thought-provoking, inspiring and sobering post. For me it just goes to show that even when I think I’m doing a decent job, I can always be better.

  3. I’ve made many mistakes as a teacher in the past. Too many times I gave up on a child, because it was too hard to spend enough time with them individually and I had a large workload. We’re only human and the stresses of this high demanding occupation can pull you down, however, I’ve learnt a few things that have helped me and the students I teach so much more. Even if it’s one student you make an impact on, it means the world to them.

    1. If you’re not happy in the classroom make a change. Kids notice! Change schools, try a different learning area, do something else for a while. Come back refreshed.
    2. Treat students like you would your best friends.
    3. Tell them they’re loved!
    4. Be honest with them. Show them who you really are and that you’re human too.
    5. Tell them you love coming to class and teaching them.
    6. Don’t tell them off, tell them you’re dissapointed that they don’t value your opinions. That it impacts you.
    7. Smile at them.
    8. Speak to them outside the classroom.
    9. Find out what your students are interested in.
    10. Show them that your generally interested in wanting to know about them and their interests.
    11. Find similar interests between you and them.
    12. Go into the classroom with the expectation that these kids aren’t bad they just haven’t been taught on how to be good, or atleast the best person they can.
    13. Look for the things they do well and make it a big thing. Even if to you it still needs work.
    14. Don’t look at the lower achieving students as not meeting the mark, but rather whether they’ve met their mark. Not all students will get A’s, B’s, C’s. For some just writing a paragraph could be their mark and a step up.
    15. We have time schedules where students are required to meet a certain level. Yet some can’t work within that time limit. It takes them longer to understand. Should we penalise them?

    A lot of these ideas many teachers already use, but it’s always nice to be reminded of them. Many times we forget!
    Good luck teachers! You all make a difference!

    • I love your ideas! My favorite is number 14. We definitely need to see how a student is progressing and focus on the progress. Some of the students I worked with in the 8th grade read at a 2nd grade reading level. Realistically, the majority of the students would not pass the reading exam at their grade level, but they would make progress to a 5th grade reading level. Test scores would say we failed but that is a lot of progress and we can’t continue taking these victories away from the teachers who help make this happen or the students who worked hard to achieve this step. The problem with the system is that unless the students achieve this in a year then the rest of their progress is considered “not enough.”

  4. wow… what a powerful post Shelly. i’m so with you..

    here’s our latest form of communicating what we’re trying to do:

    most definitely geared on passion…

    i’m surrounded by scientific types daily who can’t get away from the rules of the game of school,… the way we’ve always done things. and yet in my research.. i’m finding more and more evidence…and more and more analytical proof of the validity of passion and plns and process vs content in any place that models success.

    the ironic thing.. is it’s what we all want deep down inside. it’s being proved time and again as successful. yet we can’t take that one step.
    plns per passion provide a process for lifelong, rigorous, truly innovative and authentic learning. a doorway for every single student and teacher to be doing what they love.

    most still think it’s too flakey to be valid.

    • Monika,

      I noticed the other day on Edchat someone was saying that Ed reform requires research. I think when we get too scientific or focus too much on data then we lose sight of motivating our students. I hope you win your battle to convince the scientific types we have to have passion. Passion motivates. We are dealing with humans and not statistics! I love what you do with your students and admire your grassroots movements.

  5. That was an inspirational post. More teachers need to read this post and the others like it. I taught in an at-risk school and many of the teachers were content on just having the kids sleep quietly and pass them along. These students are the ones that need to be reached out to most, not held at arms length. A teacher can’t save every student, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    Great post Shelly. Keep up the amazing job of being a common sense spokeswoman for education. 🙂

  6. Great post Shelly,
    These days I’m almost where you are. Thinking about the ones who are at the edge of being a drop out.
    What can a teacher do?
    Well,Even if we can help just one of them, it means we have achieved our goals. As Nicholas points out we can’t save all but we should give it a try.The ones who really love teaching do it, I’m sure. Let’s all wish that those kids would meet at least one inspirational teacher throughout their school life.
    You can always teach the one who is ready to learn, whose parents are ready to support. For success, you need to try to find a way to reach the unreachable.
    Eva B.

  7. I totally agree Shelly! I taught a monthly class at Full Sail for 11 years. Being a monthly class, it is tough to learn all the names. After about 6 years I realized that I was learning the names of the trouble students but not the good ones. I fixed that and was happier afterwards!

  8. Thanks for your insites. I too work in a socio-econimacally challenged area. Here the boys (men) have a 50% chance to either be in prison of dead by ther age of 17. With these statistics it’s hard to focus on what is most impoortant.
    I promoted 114 6th graders today. The paerents hugged and cried as they were so proud and thankful to get their 12 yr olds this far, and ready for middle school. some of these parents know that this will be the only “graduation” their student will ever see.
    In my class the students are told daily how smart they are, and how if they apply themselves they are capale of anything. I truely believe it too.
    I try to incorporate technology in my class to keep the students interested. Also, I try to pretest everthing so I can differentiate the lessons to their needs. They will not stay on task if they are lost and/or bored.

  9. Great post! I know I changed grade levels this year so that I could distance myself and see the kids again.

  10. Shelly, thanks for your post which deals head on with a very disturbing reality.

    There are so many ways to begin to deal with this such as helping adults, including many parents, to understand the difference between ENCOURAGING children and BADGERING them. Many adults need to be introduced to and practice positive communication skills.

    But I’d like to suggest a very simple idea. I’m a big believer in posting positive signs/messages in school hallways, entrance ways or wherever. Words/messages publicly displayed, do, I believe, affect attitudes. For example, I remember campaigning with my school district to have something as simple as a large WELCOME sign placed above the main entrance to my school. It did make a difference! Everyone who entered that building understood that cordiality was a priority.

    Now to my point! It has occurred to me during the process of writing and sharing the free e-copy of my book (Teaching as an Act of Love ) as well as reading comments such as yours about the destructive negativity of some adults and educators, that there should be a sign posted prominently in every organization serving youth, in every school district office, in every Teachers’ Room and in every schoolroom reading: ALL OF OUR CHILDREN DESERVE LOVING ADULTS WHO ADORE THEM!!

    I believe the message would slowly and surely reach a very wide audience. Maybe the wording could be polished up (it’s almost 2am here in Jerusalem) but I hope my point is understood. It’s a simple idea with the potential of becoming very powerful.

  11. Shelly, I am so with you here. At the heart of education is children. Kids who have already formed strong opinions and beliefs about themselves based on what others have told them. What if we started making them believe something good about themselves? What if we were the mirror to reflect the beauty and talents that they have inside of them. I refuse to believe this is a hopeless cause. We just need to make more people aware, cause more people to think about and commit to doing something to change this. I think at the core of this issue is adults who believe the lies they were told as children, as a result, they continue spreading those lies to the next generation. I once read that it takes 36 positive statements to make up for one negative. That is a lot of positives that many children never hear. We need to focus on the positives of each child and work toward helping them get to the place where there are even more positives. Great reminder for us all!

  12. Well said.
    I think it all starts with believing. Believing ALL students can learn. Believing EVERY student has value. Believing WE CAN and DO make a difference. THEN we have hope, and impact our students.
    The one phrase I would love to have removed from all educators’ minds is “Not to sound unprofessional…” Which is usually followed by a statement that should be read that their hearing to revoke their teaching qualifications.
    May we each change one, for the benefit of the thousands s/he impacts.

  13. I have, gladly, not seen teachers quite this bad, but sadly have seen many who consistently and daily speak down to children, provide them with negative feedback, repeatedly impede their growth.
    And the most frustrating element of this is that there is so much research showing the heartening benefits of treating children differently.
    This is why I’ve dedicated my self to teach positive psychology and educational neuroscience to children and teachers.
    Here in Australia, we baulk at the idea of teaching wellbeing to children, despite the overwhelming evidence of its personal and social benefits.
    So my only suggestions to fix the system is as follows:
    1. Spend our education money on teachers: developing them, training them, enthusing them, and taking away from them the ridiculous education-unrelated pressures.
    2. Allow schools and ed departments to gracefully remove those teachers who have clearly lost their passion.
    3. Teach wellbeing (positive psychology, resilience etc) to students as part of the curriculum.
    4. Teach wellbeing (as above) to teachers as a way of improving their own mental health – this has enormous benefits for both teacher and student.


    Greg Donoghue
    ThinkEd Australia

  14. You are so right on! There’s not enough money in the world that can help a student feel successful. Teachers hold such power in their hands and so many abuse it. They may not use the words stupid, loser, idiot…, but their tone and facial expressions clearly express the words. I see it early on in elementary school. Most students come into school thinking they can do ANYTHING. We seem to systematically “cut them down to size.” How sad. I say we need to L.O.V.E. our students – Look for the best, Overlook the petty, Validate their efforts/abilities, and Encourage, encourage, encourage. I believe that as teachers who DO care, we have to be willing to speak up/stand up for the child when we see/hear such horrid behavior. Thanks for speaking up! B. Bell

  15. […] Do We See the Beauty in Every Student?- I would love to believe all educators enter our field full of compassion for every student. My experience paints a dark reality. I’ve seen and heard too many educators curse at students, call them stupid or tell them they will amount to nothing. How can we prevent this and why should we? […]

  16. I have been equally disgusted over the years at witnessing lackluster teaching, and downright rude behavior on the part of colleagues. While I certainly disagree with treating students this way, I also disagree with treating teachers this way. Just as students don’t respond well to negativity, neither do teachers. Often the stereotypical “20 year uncaring, passionless veteran teacher” did not start out that way. After a career of being beaten down with new regulations, complaining parents, and poor public opinion, it’s easy to see how the passion can wane – often without the teacher realizing it has happened. The key is to hold up the mirror, as respectfully as possible. Validate the effort, acknowledge the shortcomings, and provide hope to the teacher that change is possible. That takes time and trust of administrators and teacher coaches. Are there teachers that should have never set foot in a classroom? Yes, I believe there are. But I think there are far more teachers who are in need of support and effective professional development.

    • Judith
      While I agree that educators should be supported and developed, they are now adults and need to take responsibility for their own actions. More importantly though, our students need to protected from these burnt-out, angry and often abusive teachers. As one of my most magnificent ‘problem’ students told one of her teachers – “clearly you don’t like children. You really need to get out of teaching”. I couldn’t have put it better myself – our children deserve so much better.

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