Some four decades ago, my mother fell headfirst into teaching. She was not trained for it. It was not her dream to be a teacher while growing up in the languid suburbs of Istanbul. In fact, she had majored in Chemical Engineering and then spent the first few years of her professional career on construction sites.
It was only due to the unusual situation that she found herself in, idling all day on the hot, dry pavements surrounding Baghdad International School waiting for her daughters to be done with the school day, that she sought refuge (and perhaps air conditioning) in a classroom. By her own account, her first few years were a blur — learning how to teach, how to connect with kids, how to strike the right balance of terror, discipline, curiosity and joy that only great teachers master. Her first crop of students are in their 50s right now. Her latest crop are barely in their teens.
By the time it was my turn, some ten years into her career, my mother had hit her teaching stride. There were only five students in the Calculus class that my mother taught in the basement of the Marymount School of NY, but we may as well have been a class of 500. She taught us by the Socratic method, constantly called upon, drilled in the details, no escape in sight. Her expectations were simple: Don’t just do it, learn it. Don’t just learn it, love it.
“Mom — why did I get a B+ on this assignment? I got literally every question right.”
“Yes, but you spent less than thirty minutes on it over the weekend. You never took the time to understand why a polynomial can be nonnegative, and yet never achieve its minimum. Isn’t that fascinating?”
Yes. No. Okay, maybe. The teenage me sulked at my undeserved grade, while on some level internalizing that greatness, that last 10%, comes from digging deeper, seeking more. Correct answers will only get you so far.
I wasn’t the only student that came away from a “Mrs. Arkan math class” knowing that an indiscernible “more” was expected of them. “I still have PTSD” joked a fellow graduate, a mother of two, now in her 40s. “Nothing felt worse than when Mrs. Arkan was disappointed in me, but also nothing felt better than when she acknowledged that you did something right.”
“Math empowers.” said another classmate. “Mrs. Arkan didn’t just teach me math. She taught me the power of knowing the right answer.”
Many of my mother’s students were justifiably terrified of her. She yelled. She put you on the spot. She shook her head with disappointment when you flubbed an answer. “Come on, girls, it’s so simple…” she would say, as she pounded at the whiteboard having solved a dizzyingly complex proof.
But she also never put any stock in the oft-accepted concept that somehow women were less capable that their male counterparts at doing math. And she set out to prove it, year after year, decade after decade, as many of her students went on to become engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians of every stripe.
This year she celebrated her 31st year at the Marymount School of NY, a private Catholic School for girls in Manhattan. But all in, she has taught for close to 40 years across several different continents to kids of every race, creed, gender and religion. Her one truth being that math is universal and that learning never stops.
She personally proved that time and again, getting her Masters Degree from Columbia University in her 50s, taking course after course in her 60s. Complex analysis and Reiman Surfaces, Algebraic Topology, Instructional Design of Educational Technology. Even now, days from her retirement…
“I know zoom is terrible, but online teaching really does have some great advantages, so I just signed up for this fantastic calculus class on Outlier…”
“Why, mom, why?”
Why not, indeed. Is there a time in life when the quest for knowledge must diminish? A time when we should cease to ponder the very questions that give our lives purpose?
No, certainly not, and definitely not if you are my mother.
She never intended this. This life. This career. These years of striving to make math fun, relevant, exciting and essential. The decades spent grappling with teenage insecurities, frustrations, tears, hopes and dreams all to occasionally sneak in a lasting understanding of the quadratic formula or plane geometry. But as is often the case, we find our calling in unexpected places. My mother somehow found hers pacing those parched pavements in Baghdad, Iraq.
So back to my original question, when does a teacher stop being a teacher?
In this case — in every case — I believe the answer is NEVER.
A teacher lives through her students, her “kids” as my mother calls the multitudes that have passed through her classroom. And for years to come, every time one of them manages their money, cooks a complex recipe, analyzes any data, factors in risk, or simply corrects their own child’s homework…a bit of my mother will be there with them. Looking over their shoulder. Nodding her head in approval.
“That’s right. See. You did it right. I told you — it’s so simple.”
— — — — — — — — — — — — —