On teaching pottery

A friend just asked what I consider to be the ingredients to a successful class. With a cup of coffee before my breakfast to bolster me this is what I came up with:

Let me see….

Back in my early fire breathing days of teaching my plan was that I would help students learn as much as was possible within the constraints of the class and their lives. I was a teacher and my job was to teach, as much and as well as I could. Students were ‘students’ and their job was to study and learn as much as they could. Or so it seemed to me….. I did handle making exercises before every class and timed them so their focus was more on doing things efficiently than getting sucked into the hypnotic vortex of working with clay. Years later I would hear stories of friends meeting former students and how they all described hating those exercises but how much they appreciated being forced to learn. Like medicine that doesn’t taste good, sometimes learning is not all fun and games. That’s what I was thinking all those years ago…. Geeze, was I ever serious!

After a few years of teaching like this (I was then affectionately known as ‘The Slave Driver’) I had to eventually realize that in a non credit class there were a variety of legitimate reasons for being there, not all having to do with learning. Even if every single student of mine suffered through my stern expectations and came out the other side grateful, that was still me imposing my values on them, and at some point I decided I was no longer comfortable with that. Yes, I want my students to learn, but the thing I had not fully considered was that I am not necessarily training professional potters. Even in academic settings very few students go on to make a career out of throwing pots. I am not training folks who will necessarily be using these pot making skills in any significant sense ever again in their lives. And so I discovered it is perhaps less important what they learn than that what they learn has meaning for them here and now. That’s the conclusion I eventually came to.

I stopped giving mandatory ‘homework’ assignments and slowed the pace and ambitions of the instruction. Rather than exposing the students to new forms and ideas every week I designed broader lessons that they could have multiple weeks to explore. They could choose which of several options to do and then take more than one week to learn what there was to learn. At their own pace and in their own interests. Unlike in academic settings where there may be official ‘requirements’ in particular courses, things to check off a list of criteria for ‘successful’ completion, I recognized the value of greater freedom for my students. It wasn’t so much about the volume of what they were exposed to, the often necessary seeming elements of some imagined ‘foundation’, but the comfort they were able to achieve with each lesson…… The idea of teaching, I discovered, was less about some external measurement than the students’ own psychology.

So when you ask me to define ‘success’ for a class of this nature I would put that definition almost entirely in the students’ hands: Were they happy and fulfilled in the class?

And not every student will always be happy with how each instructor teaches, so you can’t always take it personally when they don’t like what you are offering. Some students have very narrow expectations, and its not always possible to cater to all of them at once. Try your best, but also try to find the middle road where as many students as possible will settle comfortably under the wings of your instruction. They may never end up as full-time potters (I’ve only had one student in 17 years who has gone on to do pottery that seriously. This low number is not a ‘failure’ on my part, either.), but they are all human beings with normal human aspirations and desires. Treat them as humans first, students second, and you will be doing well.

And sometimes you are lucky enough to find a group of students who likes working together. For many of your non-credit/community center type students this will be their escape from the pressures of daily life, the stresses of their jobs, or relief from parenting and other duties, among the hectic full-time diversities that make up any one life. If you get students who so look forward to their time in the class you should do what you can to encourage this camaraderie. Do what you can to make every student feel part of the group and welcome. Include them all in every discussion and show that you value what they have to say, and especially value that they are taking the time out of their day to spend it with you. The dynamics between members of the class will depend on who they are and what they each bring to the table. Your job as teacher is sometimes less about what you are showing them on the wheel, your ‘instruction’, and often more about what you are doing to promote their enjoyment of the experience.

Nip every frustration in the bud. Sometimes students will come to class with awful burdens from their outside life. Make the classroom a safe haven from those troubles. Don’t let minor failures with clay spiral out of control and ruin the experience of sanctuary. Give them warm up exercises. Always remind them to start off in a comfortable size range and work upward in their ambitions. Never have them start off with too great a challenge (technical or size-wise), or you will potentially be setting them up for frustration. For difficult techniques give intermediate assignments and build their skills on less heavily invested exercises.

Always praise the things they are doing well. Appreciate the progress they have made and draw their attention to how far they have come. Letting them see that its not just about what is happening on the wheel at this one moment but that there is a longer term view almost always takes the pressure off. You can even do assignments that you state up front will not be saved, so you can often easily take the anxiety inducing pressure off having something done at the end to show for it.

If you think first how each individual student will benefit from what you are showing them you get to treat them all as people, with specific talents, specific interests, and specific needs. If instead you give them only uniformly strict assignments you imagine them as cookie cutter cogs in the machinery of teaching. And ‘failure’, then, has everything to do with standardized moment to moment performance, not their own personal progress or relative ambitions. Teaching should never be one size fits all. That only asks for trouble, in my experience…..

One of the hardest things for students to sometimes see is that they are working on themselves even more than they are working on the clay. By learning how to shape the clay they are learning to shape their own abilities with the clay, and so its sometimes important to remind them of this, to draw their attention away from the lumps of clay to their own selves. Its never just about the clay. For every bit of technical wisdom there is in how they work the clay or think about what they are doing there are frequent parallels about the larger picture of their own lives. If its only about the clay, then they are not learning very much. Success and failure then hang on a razor’s edge. If what they are learning is part of their own evolution as human beings, then success and failure are simply the bricks and mortar of a foundation that potentially reaches far into their future lives.

Failure on the wheel is not so important for what it says about that one experience, its not make or break, but should be savored for what it teaches us about our own capacities and for how we respond to the challenges we face. Failure with clay should never be the excuse to quit, a flunking grade, and the only reason we drop out. Failure with clay is only ever the stepping stone that we either eventually master or which teaches us new directions that we can take.

Choosing a new direction is often how you turn one idea of failure into a very different looking picture of future success. Its less about measuring up externally than it is about how the external things are eventually incorporated into our own ambitions. That path is never always clear, and in fact almost always diverges at some point from what we expected. Failure is one of the questions being asked of us, the challenge that we either do this one thing better next time or that we learn the new course that it has deflected us into. There is no universal or objective external measure of personal success. Period.

So, success will only ever look different for each and every student, and it is your job as a teacher to nurture that as best you can. It will often be less about what you can read from the pots themselves and more what you can read from their hearts and their laughter. Success will be less about the finished version of some pot they threw and more about the person whose ability it was to throw that pot. The finished pots are nice to have, they are the signs of progress, but you must always remind them that the real progress is in their own ability to make these pots. If they can ‘get it right’ this once, then the measure of true success is that at some other time they will not only get it right again, but they will do it one better. THAT is what success means.


Coincidentally, in my facebook feed just after I had made this response another potter friend asked publicly for “any great lesson tips and/or general teaching advice you may have”. Let me include some of the wisdom that was being shared by her friends:

  • For every “rule”, show an exception to it.
  • Also, demonstrations never go as planned, and thats OK! Its a great time to tell them what can go wrong.
  • Show different ways to execute a process.
  • Handouts! And telling students before every demo that they can ask questions.
  • When doing demos, think of James Barber on the Urban Peasant, and treat the class like a cooking show (have each step done beforehand, and then show them how to do it).
  • In my experience I have found that if a demo last longer than 20-30 minutes I lose them completely. I have had to change the way I disseminate information. I will do many shorter demos throughout the class instead of one or two longer ones. The Julia child’s method of instruction is necessary for this, have the different stages finished before the class begins
  • Teach them what they need to hear at that particular time in their development. Don’t tell them that its ‘the right way’ of doing things, just that doing this gets you that. They don’t always need to hear ‘the truth’ or even the wide variety of possibility. Its like learning math, you don’t give them advanced calculus before they learn algebra, but you neither diminish the importance of algebra or claim that it is the only way of doing math. They need the ladder to climb, but once they have gained perspective and practical resources, they no longer necessarily need it. They can kick the ladder away.

Stuff to think about, at least.

Happy potting!

Happy teaching!

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, Clay, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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