Who Makes a Good Teacher?

Who Makes a Good Teacher?

Warren MacKenzie and Maren Kloppman

Over the years, Warren MacKenzie has influenced innumerable ceramists, including Maren Kloppmann. Photo: © Bouky Labhard

Is it someone who knows more than everyone else? Someone whose expertise can’t be challenged?

I used to think so, at least on some level of consciousness.

Fifteen years ago, I was hired as a faculty member at a well-regarded school for mid-career journalists. I was half-flattered and half-terrified that I’d be found out – as somebody who didn’t know her stuff after all. Determined not to let that happen, I arduously prepared lectures that would hold up in a court of law; they were airtight. And I was not above memorizing the key parts. (Don’t ask questions, people; I’ve got a flow to maintain.)

To me, at that time, teaching was a performance, and I didn’t want the smallest hiccup. God help me if people saw me as human and fallible. God help me if people got too close.

I reflected on this as we put together this issue on education and emerging artists. Since those early, anxiety-ridden experiences in the classroom, I have envied many other teachers – teachers who turned on a dime, responding to class dynamics and changing course in the middle of a session; teachers who confidently tossed out provocative questions with no idea where the discussion might lead; teachers who formed relationships with students in a matter of hours; teachers who took chances I never took.

Now I’m envying Warren MacKenzie, whose profound influence on hundreds, if not thousands, of ceramists over decades is a thing to behold. For MacKenzie, teaching seems not so much a matter of performance – or even of transmitting information – as it is a way of being: humble, open, present.

MacKenzie, retired from the University of Minnesota but not from pottery, was not a showy teacher. One protégé, Michael Simon, recalls his professor as almost mute as he demonstrated how to open a low form. “He got on the wheel and made a couple; maybe he said some incidental thing, but that was a good example of his teaching.” MacKenzie was not there to perform, to dazzle. He was there to help.

And his teaching was not confined to the classroom. “He opened his home and his life to those of us around him,” Linda Christianson recalls. Wayne Branum remembers being at MacKenzie’s house for firings, sharing meals and conversation over many hours. “This was the best time to learn things that became important to me and shaped me as a person and artist,” he says. MacKenzie let people in, close enough to observe every bit of his process, related to clay or not. He worked alongside his students, friends, and colleagues. “A lot of information,” Guillermo Cuellar says, “was transferred to me just by making pots together.”

He also cultivated his protégés long after they’d left his tutelage. “In letters and phone conversations, Warren has followed our lives and careers, chiding us when we’re not responsible and productive, criticizing and praising the work as we go along,” Nancy d’Estang says.

Along with process and technique, MacKenzie modeled the principles he hoped his students would adopt: Work on your craft every day. Make pots that are useful, not trendy or flashy. Have fun. 

His influence flowed not from ego but from a kind of selflessness that opens the door to learning. He’s so unassuming that he’s amazed when people make a fuss over him. 

And that, my friends, is a good teacher.