Marble Jar Living

“When you get tired, learn to rest, not quit.”–Bansky

I have a photo of myself from early in my teaching career.  It was taken in an old portable classroom, located a good distance from the rest of the K-5 elementary school in which I worked with students with severe behavioral problems.  Filled mostly with odds and ends of what the custodians and myself could piece together, and a few study carrols that a special education resource center provided, I was tasked to help students whose behavior was considered far too disruptive/dangerous for the so-called, “regular” classroom.  These students came from diverse backgrounds across the entirety of our rural county, rather than solely the local school community, and were aged five through twelve.  Complicating matters further, roughly 75 percent of the students had been affected by drugs and/or alcohol while in the womb.  The challenge to remediate behavior while educating these students was overwhelming at times.  As a look back, it was a good thing I was young and naive! 

While behavior management is not without its criticism, I found these techniques to be effective in this particular classroom setting.  One such practice that I employed was the marble jar.  Using an empty jar, I set a clear behavior goal, such as students engaged in on-task classwork for 15 minutes (without outbursts or tantrums).  Using a timer as a clear measure of time, I added a predetermined number of marbles to the jar each time the goal was successfully reached.  Students would then be praised, take a short three to five minute break, and then resume work again for another time period. However, if the behavior goal was not reached, I would remove that same number from the jar and remind students of their goal.  As the length of time increased for appropriate on-task behavior, the more marbles could be earned or detracted.  Once the jar was filled, we celebrated with a “reward” as determined by the students, such as an extra or longer recess, a “dance party,” extended storytime, popcorn party, and so forth.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

I worked to make the marble jar, and other behavior management procedures, more class-owned.  Holding group meetings, students discussed and selected group and individual behavior goals.  We talked about red light, yellow light, and green light behaviors that detracted or benefitted their own learning and the classroom community as well as the power of personal choice/accountability of behavior.  

Writing about it now, it seems like such a simplistic, idyllic world.  It was FAR from that.  The developmental, emotional, and cognitive functioning levels in this K-5 classroom were an incredibly wide gulf. Furthermore, since it was the early 1990s, I recognize now that several of my students had been misidentified/misunderstood and were actually on the autism spectrum, but that was not as recognized as it is now.

If you ask my husband, John, he will tell you of the long hours this class demanded of me.  He will further tell you the physical toll it took upon me as the job often required the instructional aides and me to restrain students who were acting out.  Emotionally, I did not leave my job at the door.  Many students–not all–were impoverished, lacked resources, and/or returned to homes that were the source of their behavior issues in which to begin.

Photo by Grafixart_photo Samir BELHAMRA on Pexels.com

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”–Edmund Hillary

I can recall days, and even weeks in that former special classroom, in which there were no more marbles to remove and none had been added.  These were discouraging time periods for me because, in my youth and arrogance, I could not understand why I could not make a difference.  Why couldn’t I make them want to change their behavior?  Why couldn’t I do this or do that?  It was a bitter pill to swallow; to know that no matter how much I loved and cared for these students, I could not make them change. In fact, while I could provide a safe and consistent classroom environment with clear procedures and boundaries as well as maintain a professional, caring, and calm demeanor, I could not control the chemistry in their body, the functioning of their brain, or their environment outside of the classroom.  However, I could choose to adapt my thinking. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time.

My students were with me due to multiple negative events in their personal lives and/or educational history.  They did not need a visible representation of another failure, another negative.  Instead, they needed a visual representation of their success–a reminder that they can “do good.”  Therefore, I made the adaptation to quit removing marbles from the class jar–life was already doing that for them.  I added weekly “positive meetings” in which each student, staff, and me had to state at least one positive behavior/event/thing that they witnessed, thought, or chose to do.  We added at least one marble per positive observation during this pause in our week, and celebrated the good, no matter how small.  These meetings were difficult in the beginning, but with practice and grace, we all began to take notice throughout the week of the acts of “good” we needed to remember for our weekly meetings.  

Reflecting on those marble years, I realize that many of us (myself included) have spent much of 2020 and have continued into 2021 focusing on the marbles taken from our life jar.  One negative event upon another has left many of us, at times, feeling as if our life jar is empty. However, if we allow our minds/hearts to open, there has also been at least one–if not more–positive event(s) that have occurred during this same time period, and they need to be honored/remembered.

Therefore, I realize that like my early marble jar days of education, continually focusing on the losses of our proverbial life jars only reinforces the negative.  While the losses need to be remembered for perspective, and those lives lost need to be held within cherished memories, there remain many positive events that currently fill our life jars, such as family, friends, and life itself.  Additionally, COVID numbers are dropping, more vaccines are rolling out, and daily life is beginning to feel closer to normal, it is important to recognize and feel grateful for positive steps and events, no matter how small. 

“Practice makes permanent.”–Bobby Robson

Like those weekly positive meetings of long ago, let us likewise take time to pause, reflect/look for items/events/people for which to feel grateful, acknowledge these, and perhaps even offer a “positive statement” to at least one other person–even during those days & weeks when it feels as if no marbles other are being added.  It takes practice and patience as the brain seems to automatically focus on the negatives–at least mine does.  However, with regular pauses of gratitude and appreciation, we can begin to feel, well, more “pause-i-tive,” if not every day, then at least, with greater frequency.  

Gazing at that old classroom photo, I was reminded that seeing those marble moments is about practice, not perfection.  That is what I had to learn then, and it remains true today.  Positivity and gratitude take time to foster, and, like me, for many people, it is not easy, especially after so-called negative, life-altering experiences.  

Spring eventually arrives after winter; and yet, even spring has rainy days and downpours.  There is good and bad, light and dark in every season, every year, and sometimes every day.  If we only focus on the rains of spring, we miss the birdsong and blooms.  If we only focus on the darkness of night, we fail to see the brilliance of the sunrise that follows.  Plink, plink, marbles are available if only we take time to see them.

“God brings men into deep waters, not to drown them, but to cleanse them.”–John Aughey

Starting Over

“A sunrise is God’s way of saying, ‘Let’s start again.”–Todd Stocker

Before typing this, I spent nearly 2 ½ hours trying to decide the best way to begin writing.  I looked at photo ideas, quotes, inspirational readings, ideas I have saved on a document, and so forth . . . all the usual starting points for me.  I would start typing, then moments later, delete all the words.  Type, delete, repeat. My mind was filled with a revolving door of thoughts as I reflected upon the new year and all the possibilities it held.  No matter the number of do-overs, this repeatedly blank document likewise remained an opportunity for a new start–full of the hope and promise that exploring an idea through writing offers, and the enhanced understanding that comes with it.

As we close the saga that was 2020, I can say with confidence that it was certainly a year like no other.  While it began, full of hope and promise, it quickly spiraled out of control globally, nationally, professionally, and personally.  Often, when it seemed the year could not get any worse, 2020 somehow managed to throw more curve balls than a record breaking MLB pitcher.  In fact, it seems to me that 2020 pitched a no-hitter of a game.   

Photo by Erica Busick Batten on Pexels.com

As a lifelong learner, one of the reasons I write is to increase my own understanding. The process of writing slows down my thoughts, and reduces my emotions which can cloud my thinking. Writing also coaxes my analytical brain to engage more with the world rather than my intuitive/sensitivity center that, from decades of training, extends from me like antenna–seeking, searching, and constantly evaluating the temperament of a room, situation, and people.  While this so-called sensitivity is a pretty handy awareness to have, especially as an educator, it can unfortunately become overwhelmed by the feelings, energy, and attitudes of others, short-circuiting my emotional center and nearly shutting down my brain, filling me with overwhelming negative feelings and stories.

Writing is not the only way in which I tap into my logical brain.  As an educator, I must also remain centered in logic, task-analysis, and effective communication.  While I use my sensitivity skills to help navigate the world of middle school students, parents, and coworkers, I have trained myself to not react nor take situations personally.  I am not implying that I am perfect, rather that my professional and creative self have more in common with one another than private me.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

When left alone with my own thoughts, I am often given over to emotional waves.  This was especially true during 2020.  Far too often this past year, I slipped into the stories and/or negativities that seemed to be surrounding me on all sides. Therefore, one of my hopes for 2021 is a greater sense of equanimity, no matter my circumstance or setting, and I can’t help but think I am not the only one feeling this way. 

I am reminded of a former yoga instructor who once warned students of the danger of attaching to and/or becoming our negative thoughts.  He gave the illustration that if we nourished our body with good food in order to maintain a healthy body, why shouldn’t we feed our brain positive thoughts and ideas.  Therefore, when this recollection randomly entered my mind, as I sat at my kitchen table trying to tease out the precise writing idea floating just outside the periphery of my thinking, I began to look around my kitchen. 

Photo by Nicole Michalou on Pexels.com

Due to the holidays, my kitchen was filled with foods that we normally do not keep on hand.  In fact, there was so much excess, as I glanced around, that food was visible on the top of my fridge and counter–something that is normally a no-no for me.  Those foods were as lovely to the eye as on the tongue, but they lacked any real nutritional value.  These were foods, my body reminded me throughout the holiday season, that did not keep me feeling full for very long, and they created cravings I typically don’t experience.  Additionally, I found that these same foods also tended to generate a sense of fatigue and/or lethargy; and yet, my brain kept telling me to consume more of those delectable special sweets, salty-snacks, and other rich treats.  Each time I overindulged, which I did on several occasions, my mind would spin into negative thoughts about myself, my food choices, and lack of willpower–which was so silly since all of the foods were truly special occasion foods only made and eaten in this quantity one time per year.

In fact, by January, most, if not all, of the treats will be out of the house, and we will return to a more healthy, sustainable way of eating, but it supports my point.  2020 was like the sweets and junk food in my house for the holidays, it continually served up an abundance of low-quality fodder wrapped in bright screens, attention-seeking sound-bites, and eye catching headlines promising “breaking news” that was mostly devoid of any positive and fulfilling sustenance.  One sad, frustrating, or anger-inducing event after another kept emotions running high while nutrient-rich content was as hard to find as fresh produce at a local convenient mart.  

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

If 2020 has taught me anything, it is that change is inevitable and ongoing, but no matter the change, I have a choice with what I nourish my mind and how I choose to react to change.  While I am unable to rid the world of “junk,” as I can in the kitchen of my own home, I can fuel my mind at the start of each day, as I do for my writing, by spending a bit of time in quiet reflection and devotion, with an open heart and mind, and a prayer that Divine Providence will fortify me throughout the day with those positive morning messages, providing with a greater sense of equanimity in all situations.

Happiness is not the absence of problems; it’s the ability to deal with them.”–Steve Maraboli

2021 is like this once blank document, an opportunity for each of us to start again. Of course, the new year starts with much of the baggage of this past year, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to deal with it and learn to better understand it. Just as a new black document each week offers me a choice as to what I idea or thought I choose to focus my attention, each of us likewise has a choice of where we focus our attention and how we react to each problem or challenge that may occur.  Equanimity of mind seems to me like happiness–everyone wants it, but we wouldn’t know either one without the opposite extreme.  

May the blank page of 2021 serve as a reminder that life is about progress, not perfection.  Let us remember that nature does not create a storm without an end. We may not always feel happy, or remain in a state of equanimity, but we can choose what we nourish our thoughts with.  May we say goodbye to poisoning our minds with discord, disharmony, and dissension–even if the storms of 2020 continue into the new year. Instead, may we focus on what we can control: our thoughts, our prayers, and our actions/reactions. 2020 is done, and 2021 has just begun.  It’s an opportunity for a new start– even if only on the personal level.

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”–Revelation 21:5

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on Pexels.com