When I first started teaching, in order to survive I quickly became familiar with what’s commonly known as “behaviour management”. Stickers and charts on walls, red and green cards, or collecting pebbles or points either for table teams or the whole class in exchange for a reward. Bribing and threatening, threatening and bribing in succession. In my first classroom, I started out with marbles (and I’m not the only one – see here for similar reflections from a Finnish colleague). Marbles in exchange for good listening, for on-task behaviours, for keeping the workspace tidy, for politeness. The trouble was, I kept on losing my marbles. I would set the jar down and it would disappear promptly into the ether. Teaching was tough enough without an intricate scoreboard keeping track of the balance between good and bad behaviour – particularly when bad behaviour isn’t really allowed to feature very honestly.
Nowadays the new fad in the English-speaking world is to talk about “positive behaviour strategies”. Not that there’s anything particularly new about the school of behaviourism. Over the years, teachers, schools and education systems have gotten better at implementing strategies that reinforce good behaviour and give consequences to bad behaviour. Better behaviour leads to better learning – this is a widely acknowledged truism in the classroom. But really, it’s about control and power.
It’s not so many (not so very many) years since I was at school, and if my memory serves me, I’m sure most kids didn’t like chaos in the classroom any more than the teacher did. If a teacher was any good at keeping chaos at bay, they had a pretty good chance of falling under the “good teacher” category instead of the “bad teacher” one. Kids like structure. Kids like order and predictability. Kids will conform to order and predictability – and always tell you directly if you’re deviating in the slightest from the norm! Why is classroom behaviour then something that teachers – all teachers, from the inexperienced student teacher to the more weathered professional – find so taxing?
There isn’t a silver bullet of course. Behaviour is just a manifestation of the multifaceted influences on a child’s life and quite often has nothing to do with what’s going on in the classroom.
But I do want to tell you about my current grade 5 class’s marble jar. My students know that I like to listen to them when they have good ideas or suggestions they want to put forward. So one day a group of children started reminiscing about a marble jar they used to have in 3rd grade. They liked the marble jar, because they could earn a reward afternoon if they managed to fill it. I asked them to tell me more about this marble jar. What did you have to do to get a marble? How did it work? What were the rules? Their eyes lighted up as they explained. Finally I was almost bowled over by a chorus of voices asking if our class could have a marble jar, too. Please, please, pretty please?
“Listen kids”, I said, “you know that I expect you to behave well and do your best even without a marble jar. But I can see that you are really keen to have one. So let’s decide on the rules. Tell me, what could you do to really impress your teacher?”
So I dug out my old marble jar from storage and set it on the classroom windowsill. It started to fill up slowly. The kids whooped when they got onto their second layer of marbles, and their third. They counted the marbles often, and they loved being picked to add a marble for impressing their teacher.
Something else happened too. They started to organise themselves.
“Quick! Quick, let’s get in our seats before she comes back from the morning meeting!”
“Get your maths books out!”
To say I was impressed is an understatement. I was utterly astonished! On these occasions I couldn’t help but walk into our classroom with a huge grin on my face, bursting with pride and affection. The kids knew that during moments like these I was profusely generous with marbles. But I think they also just really liked seeing their teacher happy!
So what have I learned from the children about marble jars? A marble jar is not meant for control, and trying to manage children’s behaviour is like the tail wagging the dog. Instead it’s all about relationships. Relationships are a two-way thing. We’re very good at telling our students to listen, but when is the last time you took some time to really listen to the children with whom you spend most of your days? What did they tell you? And crucially, what did you do to show them that you listened?
Primary School Teacher
Doctoral Student in Education
University of Eastern Finland