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