Teaching math at Beanstalk International Bilingual School
Even though math wasn’t Zori Zlatinova’s favorite subject in school, she decided to become a math teacher after college and has remained one for 23 years. For the past 14 years, she’s been teaching in Beijing. tbjkids sat down with her to talk about the magical power of math, the rewards and challenges of teaching, and her love for mapo doufu.
Where are you from?
I’m from Bulgaria. I came to Beijing in 1991 with two young children because of my husband’s job. The plan was to stay one year, but the kids went to local Chinese schools and they benefited a lot from this bilingual environment, so we stayed on for their education. I’ve been living in Beijing for 16 years now and I think I’ll be staying on for a while, because I love teaching in Beijing.
Why did you choose to become a math teacher?
Teaching is a family profession. My grandfather was a high-school math teacher, and my mother was a literature teacher. Even though my favorite subjects in school were chemistry and literature, I love math because I love the beauty of logical thinking and reasoning. It is also the “mother” of science, because it gives you a foundation to explore other subjects like biology, physics and chemistry. People may think of it as a boring subject, but it’s really a game of discovery and exploration that brings a lot of intellectual enjoyment.
How do you motivate your students?
I encourage the kids to be playful with math. For example, for geometry, I ask them to bring puzzles and toys to the class, such as those little decorative Chinese toys made of bamboo that you often see sold in the street. And then I explain to them how there is a lot of math hiding in these toys – triangles, squares, parallel lines. Then they become very curious and excited about it, and they go ahead and discover more from the toys. They like challenges and they like to explore.
Do you ever get funny answers from kids?
Lots, and I enjoy them because behind these funny answers, there’s usually interesting thinking. For instance, I showed them this pyramid-shaped toy and asked them to describe it. They said it’s a triangle box! That made me laugh, but it also means that they observed triangles in it. So I told them the proper name for the object and next time they would use more accurate words.
What’s the best thing about teaching math in Beijing?
I learn a lot through teaching. There is a saying that goes: In teaching, 90 percent of the knowledge goes to the teacher and ten percent goes to the students. I believe it is true. And the best thing about teaching math is that you can open doors for the students: It’s not just passing on the knowledge but it’s empowering the kids. The excitement lies in when you see a child has mastered the tools and is ready to go by himself, and that is when you feel that your job is done. Teaching in Beijing is great because you have this international collection of kids from all sorts of backgrounds, so it’s interesting for me to learn about their cultures and their ways of thinking. It has very much enriched my life.
What are the frustrations you’ve come across in teaching?
Sometimes I see that a student needs help in some way, so I would put my heart into trying to help. But the student isn’t responding or isn’t going in the right direction, which makes me feel that my effort is kind of a waste, because they’re too young to understand. But the amazing thing is that maybe a year later, I’d realize that it wasn’t really a waste of time. Even though it may not seem fruitful at the time, the seed was planted there, but it just took a longer time to grow. But at that moment and time I felt very frustrated. Education is challenging these days – it requires a lot of patience, communication and understanding.
What do you do to relax?
I love swimming, yoga and hiking. When my kids were younger we used to go hiking in the mountains in and around Huairou County. That’s the one thing that I miss about Bulgaria: the mountains. I have also been practicing tai chi for six years. My Chinese teacher gives me tai chi lessons three times a week early in the morning. It’s a great way to start the day.
What’s your favorite Chinese food?
I love Sichuan food because I like spicy food and I love vegetables. I like the diversity of Chinese food though – you go to different places and you get different cuisines. But all in all I love mapo doufu the best.