Teaching through frustration

I always take it to heart when a student suffers a class with mostly disastrous results. You can only put so much positive spin on torn and flopped lumps of clay in the name of progress.

So last night was one of those classes. A student who has decent experience and normally has confidence and ability was suddenly faced with an off night, and nothing I was telling her took her out of the slump.

Some days its not about the clay, and parts of a student’s outside life intrude to throw a distracting wrench in the works. And in fact she later told me that the day had not been a good one and that she was already worn out before class started.

And in my own experience I have sometimes felt that if I’m having a rough day already it is rarely worth sitting down at the wheel because that negativity will often spread itself to my clay work. If you know you are in a slump you can cut your losses and nip it in the bud. If you tear your Achilles you don’t still go out and run a marathon. Sometimes peace of mind is a neccessary foundation for getting positive work done. And if you don’t have it, its often a case of “Why bother?”

But I have also noticed that if you truly love working in clay, sometimes you can turn a bad day into a good one simply by digging in and rediscovering the joy of something that makes you happy. The key is to navigate the shoals of disaster and to find the calming waters of confidence. Frustration will usually build on frustration, but success will often also build on success.

So the goal needs to be one of confidence building. The only way to shuck a bad clay day is to fan the tiny flame of confidence, to let the seeds of encouragement nurture and eventually flourish. Success needs to be actively cultivated, especially when the soil is poor or has already been poisoned.

So how do we lay the foundation for that success? Well, it isn’t through starting off on the wrong foot. You don’t just plunge in blind, or without consideration. You need to identify the things that can go wrong, and then figure out if these are getting you in trouble and how to avoid them.

I remember from my own early experience with clay that I had been throwing for almost a year, and suddenly I got to a point that I couldn’t even center. I was so frustrated that I almost had a nervous breakdown. No kidding. A very near miss. I simply could not understand why one day I could throw pots 18″ tall with no problem and then for over a solid week I couldn’t even get the clay centered. Fortunately I realized the source of the problem before I became so frustrated that I did permanent harm to my pottery addiction: The clay I had been using was simply too stiff. I didn’t know any better at that point, and no one had told me.

So the first thing I mention to students at the start of every beginning class is to always be sure that the clay they are using is appropriate, and when things are going wrong I check to make sure this is not somehow the culprit. The processed clay we get for our classes will sometimes dry out if the student is not careful to keep the bags closed. And if this turns out to be the difficulty I suggest setting it aside for a fresh bag while they attempt to rehydrate the problem bag. If that is not an option, and they absolutely have to use this clay at this time, sometimes the lumps can be remoistened on the wheel by conning up and down a few extra times.

Which also leads to the problem area of ambitions. Say the clay is a bit stiff. Well it may not be the right time for the student to try centering a humongous lump but rather better to scale back the size to something more modest. And it also makes sense to warm up in a student’s comfort zone by not tackling the most extreme projects right out of the gate. Especially if the student is having an off day it makes sense to build some confidence with more achievable objectives. Build a steady foundation and then move forward with caution. Attempting something they have never done before with their very first lump of clay can be a recipe for disaster, even if their confidence is not already on shaky ground. So sometimes I advocate using the first three lumps of clay merely as a warm up, and that other goals be left for when they are firmly in the groove.

If the student is already in a whirlwind of frustration it can be like a perfect storm. Sometimes everything will go wrong, and things the student normally knows better than to do start making an appearance, and things they know they should do get thrust aside. The added pressure of frustration seems to spawn a determination to push through with sheer willpower. Frustration can turn smart people into being less smart. If things are going badly the student can lose focus on some of the basics. The wheel speed can get out of control. The pressure of pulling the walls can get too aggressive. They can forget the need for water to reduce friction as they work the walls. Etc. Sometimes a bad situation brings out the worst in us, and we are sabotaged by the very hole we are digging for ourselves. Sometimes we can lose the smarts we normally have by simply allowing mistakes to pile up and by getting carried away with our frustration.

So last night was an off night, and I couldn’t salvage my student’s class time. Once she had calmed down I was able to talk her out of most of the frustration but it was too late to start over again. The damage was already done, and sometimes you need to know when to walk away. Sometimes you need to know when to retreat so that you can live to fight another day.


If any of you folks out there have had similar experiences teaching or from your own potting past I’d love to hear them and the solutions it took to get back on the right track. What are some of the common issues that can go wrong for novice potters? How do we teach around and through these frustrations?

Happy potting, filled with confidence and success!



About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to Teaching through frustration

  1. Lori Buff says:

    This article makes me think about how slow we become when we are rushing around. When we focus on the time not the task we normally mess up the task and lose more time. Same thing with the frustrated student. I normally try to either lead them in the direction of some things that we know they can do well (to build confidence)but if that is failing try something completely different like slap building. The new task forces focus, the student stops forgetting what a bad day she’s having and starts thinking about the process and the project, suddenly she has success and more clay skill.

    • That’s a great idea Lori!

      If the frustration becomes so associated with a particular activity then changing to a different activity is sometimes the means for an ‘out’.

      It sounds like you’ve had plenty success leading students back to the joy. Well done! I’ll keep your wisdom in mind next time an issue like this crops up.

      Thanks for your insight!

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  3. Davis Art says:

    I have an aggressive student. Big hands muscling soft clay. The clay is perfect! But this student is killing it. I don’t know how many ways I can say to ease up on the clay. Any suggestions?

    • Certainly you are right that the student needs to learn the nuance and sophistication of his sensitive hands. Maybe the issue for this person is related to the scale? Everyone’s hands are created different, and a person with overly large hands may just need a mammoth sized piece of clay to feel comfortable with. If the rest of the class is making cup cylinders maybe this student could make vase cylinders using 2, 3, or even 5 lbs of clay. Somewhere there will be a size of clay that is appropriate for each student’s hands. Its not always one size fits all.

      What I’m thinking is that with a larger pot and more clay the student will get to exercise some of his/her native talents. If strength is their forte, then give them something to be strong with. And as they get a bit more comfortable with the basics you may find that the sensitivity develops side by side. If ‘big hands’ is part of the problem then scale is immediately at least one side of the issue. You may not be able to teach sensitivity directly, but you can give the student something that is more in line with what they can do.

      Which is absolutely essential for nurturing confidence. When its all going wrong your hands just seem so ill equipped and unintelligent. That lack of confidence itself becomes a problem. But if you can establish a measure of confidence anywhere in the process it becomes a platform to build on. They may never be able to throw dainty ultra thin tea cups, but that shouldn’t stop them from finding some things they are good at.

      I hope you are able to get this student over the hump. If you’ve already tried what I am suggesting I’ll put some more thought into the ‘sensitivity issue’ itself.

      Good luck!

    • j says:

      Don’t know how old your student is but some thing that I tell people I’m teaching is to treat it the same way you would your lover. Gentle strokes and tender fingers gain bigger rewards. Force leads to everybody having a bad time.

  4. Kelly Douma says:

    So happy I found this blog post. I just had a frustrating afternoon of throwing myself. I couldn’t figure out why I had been improving and throwing more challenging forms, only to suddenly not be able to throw a simple bowl again. As soon as I read your experience with the clay being too stiff, it struck me thst’s what was likely wrong with mine. It was the last third of a bag from a box I hadn’t used in a while and even though I wedged it, I was getting lumps in the walls of the pieces I was trying to throw. I now have a bag of scrap that I need to dry out and wedge again, but I’ll open a fresh box of clay tomorrow and give it another go. Thank you for sharing your experience! You’ve eased my frustrations!

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