The Parable of the Bad Pottery Teacher

I may have mentioned a while back that I’ve been dabbling with pottery lessons.

They started out great, staying that way throughout the six weeks of beginner handbuilding.

The teacher was appropriately attentive, both in demonstrating what to do with practiced hands and in taking a step back to allow the student to get the feel of the clay, while observing mistakes and offering tips and fixes to solve issues that came up.

Some time through the intermediate lessons, the teacher’s attitude inexplicably changed.

Perhaps it was me – maybe I unknowingly offered grievous insult to his honor with a humble jest that I -thought- demonstrated student modesty.

It was an offhand smiling remark to another student and him about how all the great bits of my piece were the mark of a master’s hand, after he had helped, and all the lopsided bits were mine.

Or perhaps it was him. Over the weeks of the lessons, he seemed perceptibly disinterested in teaching – complaining bitterly to older hands and partner potters that he had to rush to prepare for suddenly booked corporate events; that student works were piling up needing to either be kiln-fired or collected by beginner students who never returned after the first six weeks; bitching within earshot of existing students that the various newbies showed up with no or last minute notification or didn’t bother to attend lessons as they felt like it – and generally evincing distinct signs of burnout.

My last couple of intermediate lessons felt like an exercise in deliberate inattention.

He’d walk by to offer the odd word of advice to the one or two beginner students, then walk out the door and put himself incommunicado, leaving us to flounder on doing our own things.

Now and then, again in earshot of all the struggling students, he’d express his belief in his supremely hands-off teaching style to another obviously experienced artist potter who was just sharing the same venue.

“Give us time and space to make our own mistakes and screwups, and then figure out how to fix it for ourselves” seemed to be the general gist.

Inside, I was fuming with frustration.

No, really, I get the hands-off method.

I think it makes sense, judiciously applied, but:

a) the student has to feel that the teacher -cares- (the vibe I got was mostly laziness, judgmentalism and burnout)

and b) the student has to have some basic grounding in HOW to even begin looking for answers to fix the problems they’re having

With both missing, chances are fairly good that a sizeable subset of students will drown, for every one student who flounders on to reach shore, having figured it out for themselves.

Tossing people into the deep end of the pool after demonstrating a swim stroke once and waiting to see who comes out is -not- good teaching.

In my book, anyway. I expect a good teacher to be able to break things down for a student, encourage step-by-step practice and gradual progress, observe errors and offer guided advice on how to fix the problem and in general, scaffold the student’s learning.

After the end of my intermediate lessons, I took a short break and really questioned if I wanted to go on to the advanced lessons of wheel throwing with said less-than-good teacher, especially since he seemed to be doing everything in his power to dissuade me from even paying him for the next set of lessons.

Mostly, it was the sunk cost fallacy that did me in. The beginner and intermediate lessons were a prerequisite for the advanced ones. If I walked now, and sourced for another teacher, the effort, time and money sunk into the previous months would likely have to be written off, as I’d end up fulfilling said teacher’s cynical prophecies of a student that would never come back.

Also, it didn’t seem polite to end abruptly. Leaving after a beginning, middle, end sequence was another thing altogether. One could then seek out another teacher and say truthfully that one had completed a pottery course, but was now looking for further improvement and new perspectives from a brand new teacher.

So I went ahead and signed myself up for another six weeks of instructorial neglect.

Halfway through now, and it went about as much as expected. One demonstration and then left to one’s own floundering devices.

Maybe I frustrate him as much as he frustrates me. Maybe he just doesn’t know -how- to teach me.

I remember things slowly, especially when it comes to visual bodily demonstrations. Perhaps my mirror neurons are somewhat dysfunctional, I do not really learn viscerally. Dance, exercise, pottery, you name it, I cannot see once and automatically ape.

It has to be repeated multiple times. I have to preferably read it, in step-by-step fashion. I have to see pictures and photographs and rehearse placing my hands in the demonstrated positions. Theory must come before practice.

Instead, full of frustration, I’m often left googling up “pottery concept X” after the lesson that introduces the name of concept X and not much else beyond the realization that I’m making a right muckup of concept X because I don’t even know what I’m actually supposed to ideally do in the first place.

I learn more by eavesdropping. Imagine that.

Said teacher is having a extended cheerful conversation with another experienced potter, just chilling and hanging out and steadily ignoring me, and he pulls out his phone and shows her some Youtube video of an advanced technique from a potter of a different country. He does -not- show the video to me.

I make such a right muckup of concept X (centering, if anyone knows pottery) for hours and look so distressed and woebegone, that after the “bad” teacher has rushed out of the workshop to grab his lunch before his next batch of ungrateful students, that the other experienced potter comes over and offers me a completely free demonstration of the way she does it – and by the way, more emotional support in those five minutes than the last five weeks.

She then promptly screws it up with a perfectly overheard conversation to the teacher who just came back, expressing her own helplessness at trying to explain concept X to me, while he offers her a commiserating knowing smile and shrug.

I stifle an internal scream.

It isn’t until the lesson is over and I’m furiously googling again when I chance upon THE article that sings to me – The Clay Will Tell You How You Are.

Here is a woman who makes me feel better because she’s had an even worse time of it than me.

At least my piece of clay didn’t turn into a flying projectile, but just sat there as an insistently lopsided soppy wet yet hard and sandy lump that evoked the ever unproductive ritual question and answer from student to master:

“Is this centered?”

“Not centered.”

“Now?”

“Not centered.”

“How about now?”

“Not centered.”

I bite back on the words, “What the FUCK is centered then? How does it even look? What the FUCK am I aiming for here?” because I know I’ll get no words, just the guy’s hands coming down on my piece of clay doing magic stuff with me none the wiser.

I did learn one thing though.

When you have a bad teacher, the Internet is your best teacher.

After seeing the Youtube video being shown to the other potter, angels descended and sang Hallelujah in my head because my eyes were suddenly opened to the source of a DOZEN good teachers.

Ten Youtube video clips of “pottery centering” later, I had the foundation concepts and the scaffolding that I had not been privy to before this.

No one had told me that I was supposed to brace my hand against my leg, or that the wheel had to be at a decent speed, or that the idea was to push in one direction while easing up in the desired direction so that the clay had some place to go.

They knew how to do it, but they didn’t know how to teach it.

Those on Youtube did.

The following week, I magically produce a 98% acceptable centered piece of clay after a couple of false starts and self-experiments.

(No doubt I also just confirm in my teacher’s head that his style of teaching is perfect.)

Things go well until I run aground in the next progression step of “lifting the clay to make a tall cylinder.”

We engage in a failure cycle of call and response again until the end of the lesson.

This time though, I know what to do in order to progress my own learning next week.

cylindervid

So why I have spent 1400 words telling you guys about my pottery lessons on a -game- blog?

It strikes me that learning is learning, regardless of the subject.

It could be pottery, it could be Civilization 6, it could be Path of Exile, MMO raids, PvP or whatever.

We all want the ideal of the understanding good teacher that cares and knows how to break it down just right so that we can learn what we don’t even know, let alone don’t understand.

(Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe you have some other ideal of the perfect teacher that is just right for you. Goldilocks style, not too soft, not too hard.)

Chances are bloody good that we’re not going to get one.

We would be immensely lucky if we strike gold on the first attempt at sourcing a great teacher.

Chances are far more likely that we’re going to hit judgmental people; people too self-absorbed in their own lives to bother much about your learning; people far too ready to go for the expedient assumption of “unteachable, boot him/her out of here” much more often than a good teacher with a heart of gold. (The latter burn out real fast, I hear.)

They’re going to do shit things to your emotions.

But there’s always one person that -is- committed to your learning, and that knows -exactly- how you like to learn.

Yep. You.

Perhaps that’s the teacher to really have a heart-to-heart conversation with.

 

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