Teaching Fail

No one likes talking about their failure. Not me, not you, not anyone we know. Its the negative association of scoldings, disappointment, and knowing we should have done better. And it probably makes uncomfortable reading too, but I’m going to say a few things anyway. Maybe its actually in our interest to examine and even invite failure rather than simply hiding from it or sweeping it under the rug…..

So last night was evidence of my imperfection as a teacher. Generally I have good luck, and my students travel their eight week beginner course in throwing pots by ending up with significant progress and a handful of really nice pottery. For whatever reason, my efforts to teach these folks the basics succeed, and they complete the class feeling good about what they’ve done, either checking off something on their bucket list or discovering something they can see themselves doing again in the future.

As a teacher my job starts out attempting to communicate the issues they will face and to provide a number of solutions to making things happen. I am interested in laying the groundwork for improvement. Making pots isn’t as easy as it may first seem to outsiders, and watching youtube videos isn’t always the best step forward. More advanced potters can just do things that beginners can’t. I have to put myself in the position of a beginner and not simply teach them how I do things personally. All sorts of things are possible, but experience does make a difference. I need to remember that teaching new potters is something like teaching any learned behavior: Knowledge builds on understanding, and you can’t always start in the middle or the very end. Its possibly like teaching a person math: You don’t start with calculus, but work your way up to it with geometry and algebra. The things that professionals can do sometimes bears little resemblance to what makes sense for beginners.

Is it important not to skip steps? Do the steps really matter in all cases? Are there even ‘steps’ at all and not just a hodgepodge of possibility? Is it sometimes less about what you have to teach and more about what they want to learn? What is the middle ground that makes for a learning environment? These are all difficult questions that may not have definitive absolute answers.

Maybe it comes down to creating a bond with your students, finding the space where information is exchanged. But how do you communicate these new things to folks setting out for the first time in their lives? Making pots on a wheel is unlike anything they will ever have done previously in their lives. How do you communicate what they are looking for, what they need to understand? How do you teach this foreign language?

It has been said that instruction isn’t an industrial technique. Its not something where one size fits all. Learning means that something resonates with the person. But finding that sweet spot is not something you can just look up in a manual. The things you explain may click for one person but fail to make sense to another. The trick is getting them to see the differences between doing things one way and another, but also for them to find value in making these decisions. A teacher can help by pointing certain things out, but we can’t do their learning for them. Sometimes students learn, or don’t, in spite of everything you’ve told them…..

The past few weeks has sort of felt like that, a bit. No matter the different ways of phrasing things, no matter the time spent directing, pointing out, reiterating, showing, giving examples, and even physically holding their hands (literally) on the clay as you demonstrate what you are talking about, sometimes it just doesn’t work. There is a fundamental disconnect. I can’t help but feel that this is a failure on my part. There had to be something that I could have done differently. There had to be other ways of making suggestions that could penetrate, could forge the necessary link between mind and hands. Right? As a teacher I want to be able to make a difference.

If I didn’t care so much about what I was teaching maybe things would be different. I tend to teach with the long view in mind, and maybe this is a mistake. Not even half my students will sign up for the follow up course, so why do I bother? In a community arts setting I have to realize that people have other lives and other ambitions that they need to take care of. They are not taking the class to become professional potters. They don’t often sign up for a beginner level course with the intention or even the remote possibility that this is something they will do for years to come. Life is generally too complicated for that kind of planning. And taking a pottery class sounds fun, but then so too does Salsa dancing and knitting. Maybe they will try those next……

But I usually teach as though what they are learning will be a useful step forward should they continue on to the next level. I teach as if they will be able to build on what I have given them. And what I have discovered is that there are things they can learn with immediate pay-off but have negative long term consequences, and things they can learn that help grow a stronger foundation but be more difficult to master. I imagine it as something like teaching a person to walk: If you give them crutches to start out with they will only learn to walk with crutches, but if you teach them the difficult skills of balancing just on two feet it may start off slower, but the longterm potential is far greater. If you give a person a bowl of rice they can feed their belly right now. If you give them the ability to grow rice they will learn to feed themselves the rest of their lives. That is the difference I am imagining……

For instance, I don’t teach beginners trimming until they can design pots that deserve trimmed feet. Too often it seems that beginners will ‘save’ any old poorly thrown pot by hacking away the excess rather than actually learning to get the most out of the clay walls and learn to make well throw pots first. But beginners see the trimmed feet and want to do that too. They want the short cut rather than the earned victory. Am I making a mistake to withhold something like trimming until I feel they are ready? Should I give them the crutches when they ask for them? Feed them the rice?

This is another difficulty that beginners sometimes have: Their ambitions do not reflect their abilities. They may have seen something on the internet, or watched a youtube video, and they immediately want to make that. Its like they decide they are going to run a marathon, but don’t take into account all the preparation necessary to actually do it. You don’t just step outside your door one day and run for 26 miles. You have to work your way up to it. Training. You need patience and dedication.

Communicating that isn’t always easy. If they want to make a big bowl I suggest that it not be the first piece of clay they put on the wheel. Warm up first, get comfortable, and then test yourself. Don’t set yourself up for frustration by jumping in unprepared. Unfortunately, this longterm view isn’t always easy to swallow. Is it really worth teaching that way? I sometimes wonder…..

Another side of the beginner’s dilemma is that they can sometimes be too cautious. Should I sit back and let them be happy with what they are doing? Sometimes I have to. Its not my place or my purpose to get on their backs for every little transgression or to spoil the meager joys of what they are doing. But I always try to reinforce the idea that the more they work the better they will get, and that this means they should not invest so much in the pieces they are making now: The next ones will be better if they are genuinely improving. Those are the ones they should care more about.

But to improve they also need to stretch themselves outside their comfort zone. They need to push themselves beyond what they think they can do. The better they get the more they will look back on their first pots with dissatisfaction. They have to be willing to fail in order to move forward. And this means looking ahead, the long view, rather than focusing just on the particular lumps on the wheel now.

But what happens when there is a complete lack of communication? When the student can’t make sense of the clay, and can’t make sense of anything you the instructor are trying to say? What happens when failure is so complete that its not the first step of progress? There is no longterm view because even the present is out of focus? No future because there is nothing solid to build on?

I’ve had several students that took far longer than the mere eight weeks to get comfortable with the clay, but they eventually did, and I am enormously proud of them. My own frustration at my failure to teach well and their own frustration at not getting quality pots off the wheel was not a reason to give up but further challenge to finally get it right. Bravo!

I have been surprised that some of the students in this position carried through with it. I might have quit when faced with the same lack of success. Its a testament to their character that they stuck it out. As I said, I am enormously proud of these students. They found their groove despite my efforts. Their success is entirely their own.

Sometimes you can tell that its not simply a matter of persistence. One of my current students won’t be so lucky, and I feel bad. And I feel sad. Nothing I have done seems to help, but at least he has occasionally enjoyed the few things that have come off the wheel intact. I feel that my job as a teacher here is entirely about encouraging his positivity. But he won’t be signing up for the next level. And I have doubt that the ‘bomb pots’ he has made will all successfully navigate the kilns. My fingers are crossed.

I just can’t shake the feeling that I have failed. But maybe its not ‘failure’ unless its something that has a chance? Maybe? Is it possible that some people are simply not cut out for certain activities? I won’t ever be an astronaut or an engineer, for instance. If the odds are so stacked against success that you realize you never had a chance is it still ‘failure’? When is an opportunity not an opportunity, just something that seems possible? When is a teacher not a teacher, but simply a placeholder that gives certain rules for the studio use? I confess that in this situation I have felt anything but an actual teacher…….

If you go to a library in search of a rock concert and find only the quiet rustle of pages being turned and hushed whispers has the library failed? Maybe I just looked like a teacher because I was standing in front of class, giving demonstrations, and dispensing advice. I don’t know…..

Still, I have regrets. It seems I should have been able to do more……

Anyone else out there relate to these experiences?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Teaching Fail

  1. linda says:

    Carter — you’re the best ! I absolutely loved that intro paragraph. I think it’s vital and necessary to look at the failures and misses in order to continue to grow — if that is a practice, even through long careers. I do think it’s critical to teach the basics very thoroughly — whatever the approach. And then there is the inherent possibility that some people aren’t cut out for it? We had a gal in our class — she didn’t throw well at all — and she tried and tried and tried — I mean, over many years — I was so moved by her heart ! She didn’t give up — she dove in and worked at it. And it took the help of more than one excellent master teacher…

  2. Meg says:

    Hi Carter. Ah the truly wonderful world of teaching. I very happily taught intermediate wheel students for many years but a few were really beginners and that was really a harder task for me. I found myself getting annoyed at some of those students more easily. Why wouldn’t they listen better or try harder? But one of the enormous gifts of learning pottery is learning patience. We are always asking it of our students and of ourselves as students, but I think that we need to also ask it of ourselves as teachers. In this way we can see our students work and our own teaching in terms other than success versus failure. We remind ourselves in this way that we teach process not product and that this is true for the teacher as well as for the student

    • Wow! That’s an excellent take on this! I absolutely agree that patience is key. Its one of the most valuable lessons I learned as a beginning potter, but I realize I am not always as comfortable with it as a teacher. Thanks for sharing that insight!

  3. Ashley says:

    it’s almost as if you have been a fly on the wall in the studio were I teach. I have had students that take to clay like fish to water, but the universe loves balance, so I have had my fair share of those that just don’t get it as well. In many cases, I think they really just want the short cut. I have a feeling that these students think I am holding back that super secret trick to making good pots. They never seem to be in a groove and to be honest, I doubt they will ever find one, good teacher or not. Like you, I teach the process and hopefully get them to see that it is not about the quality during the early stages, but the quantity of clay you push through your hands and that with quantity, quality will inevitably follow (hopefully). The “how” of making pottery is one of those things that can not be easily verbalized, you have to feel it, pay attention to the information that is being transmitted to your brain via your hands and eyes and then figure out what to do with that information.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Ashley! That is a great take on the situation!

  5. Carter: I like you thought when I started teaching that everyone wanted to be a potter. After all that is all I ever wanted to be so everybody must think that too. I soon realized that they want to be a potter like me for this evening but wake up tomorrow with a paying job and the security that comes with it. You are a caring teacher and that my friend is the best kind of teacher. t

  6. Jeff Abney says:

    As a high school teacher in my 27th year of teaching ceramics, I can relate well to the experiences you describe and the questions you ponder. Some students take to clay easily and quickly, some just don’t have “the touch,” whatever that is, and probably never will. I have had some great successes teaching clay work, but most of them aren’t because of the pots that were produced. Instead, the best results have been reaching kids that never got excited about anything else having to do with school or seeing special education students with emotional and cognitive challenges really shine when working with clay. The story of one fellow in particular stands out in my mind. He was known as a real problem to every teacher he had ever had for any class. He had serious family problems and, despite his innate likability, inevitably found a way to sabotage himself at every turn. No one wanted this kid in their class. On his worst days, he could turn a classroom into his very own circus or, conversely, lash out angrily at whoever was unfortunate enough to cross his path. I was not thrilled when I saw his name on my ceramics class roll. (Continued in next post)

  7. Jeff Abney says:

    (Continued from above post)
    When the day came for me to introduce this kid to the wheel in a one-on-one teaching situation, I was quite surprised at how quickly he picked it up. He really seemed to have a knack for throwing and was immediately better at it than many of the “good” students in the class. I told him that he was doing really well and had the potential to be really successful at throwing. He provided me with one of the best moments of my teaching career when he replied, “I’ve never been good at anything before.”

    • Wow, Jeff! That’s an amazing experience!

      I think this also speaks to the transformative nature of doing things with our hands and taking a closer look at the world around us. Finding things to be interested in can be so meaningful in a person’s life. And maybe this also points to the difference that attitude can make. There have been a number of days in my own studio practice where I had outside issues that upset me or sometimes for whatever reason I was having a bad clay day, and I almost always give in to the logic of knowing when to quit. When things seem to be spiraling downwards I figure I just need to get out while the getting is good. But its interesting that the opposite is also true: You can start out feeling gloomy and once you get settled into the making process the sun suddenly peaks out from behind the clouds. Making things often makes a positive difference in our outlook.

      And this is what you are pointing to in that teaching experience: Being ‘good at’ something can make us feel good. Your student discovered that for the first time in his working memory. Finding something to enjoy is incentive to finding a place for it in our lives. Its an incentive to caring. This is the difference we can make as teachers, and I’m glad you pointed this out. Its not about the pots, and its not about how objectively ‘good’ the students are. Its about how they feel about themselves and what they are doing. If we can teach anything of value to students its that they may find opportunities for self expression and exploration that puts value into their activities and their lives. We are teaching something that we care passionately about. How can we help students to discover that passion in their own lives?

      Thanks for that great reminder!

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