TEACHER TALES: For Ms. Malikov, obstacles have paved a path to success


BP Photo by Katia Surpin

PRODIGY: Mrs. Malikov teaching a freshman Algebra class last month. She emigrated from Russia as a newlywed after earning degrees in mathematics at Moscow University.

By Hannah Diamond, Staff Writer

Math teacher Ms. Katya Malikov believes students can be successful in any field they choose if they can learn to overcome obstacles in math.

Overcoming obstacles — including math obstacles — is something she herself learned to do early.  As a girl in lower and middle school in Moscow, she was frequently sick and had to stay in bed for weeks on end.

But she looked forward to this time as an opportunity to immerse herself in math.
“I was actually happy when I got sick, because it was a chance for me to read a lot and solve problems,” Ms. Malikov said.

It was the beginning of a life that would be full of challenges and things to learn. Ms. Malikov grew up in the Soviet Union when Leonid Brezhnev was leader, and was drawn to math right away.

By eighth grade, she had been admitted to a specialized math school that gave her the opportunity to study it in depth and develop her love for the subject.

There she faced new obstacles. Ms. Malikov had always been a straight-A student, and for the first time, she realized that “regardless of the number of hours I put into solving problems, there were still a few I couldn’t get.”

“I learned to persevere,” she said in an interview. “It was a terrific time, because I learned a lot, and nothing feels as good as figuring out a hard problem which gave you trouble for quite a while.”

It was also at this school, Moscow’s School No. 7, that Ms. Malikov met someone who would become her role model: Irina Igorevna Yudina, a teacher who solidified her passion for both math and teaching by maintaining a class environment of curiosity and innovation.

Irina imparted the beauty of math and encouraged students to share their unique ideas and observations, Ms. Malikov said. She was also a strong force in her students’ lives outside of the classroom, taking them on three-week-long hikes and introducing them to her favorite books and songs.

Ms. Malikov went on to earn a masters degree in math from Moscow University, having decided to pursue math to its furthest as opposed to attending a teacher’s college. She noted that many  of her Jewish friends were not accepted to the university for religious reasons. Ms. Malikov acknowledges that this did not apply to her.
The opportunity to emigrate to the U.S. came when her husband, whom she met on a three-week long backpacking trip in the Caucasus Mountains, was invited to be a visiting professor the University of California, Davis.  Later he taught at Yale University, and now he is a professor of math at USC.

Learning English was only one of the many challenges Ms. Malikov encountered as she and her husband transitioned to American life.

“My experience growing up behind the Iron Curtain didn’t promote cultural understanding,” Ms. Malikov said. “This is something that we had to learn quite slowly and painfully through our own experience.”

For example, when taking her six-year-old son to his first American birthday party, Ms. Malikov noticed that the host’s parents were writing down who gave which gift.  Being used to people bringing and being thanked profusely for even unwrapped gifts in Russia, she assumed the worst: that her son would be judged by the quality of the present.

She learned this was not the case when, a couple of days later, her son received a kind and specific thank you note from the birthday boy. But the experience made her realize she hadn’t yet grasped the nuances of American culture.

Since arriving at Shalhevet in 2010 after teaching at Maimonides Academy beginning in  2001, Ms. Malikov has noticed tremendous improvement in her students. She finds it gratifying to watch the way their work transforms by the end of their freshmen year.

She has also noticed some major differences between the way math is taught in Russia and America. While the topics are largely the same, math students in the U.S. cover more material, while Russian students learn less material in more depth, she said.

Ms. Malikov says the phrase, “The math curriculum in the U.S. is one mile wide and one inch deep,” is often used by math educators to describe the American curriculum.

She prefers the Russian approach, saying it gives students the ability to solve more complex problems and ultimately feel more satisfaction with their work. Ms. Malikov tries to incorporate both styles into her teaching, but feels pressure to cover more curriculum than time allows.

While Ms. Malikov admires a strong work ethic, she understands that it requires sacrifice and wishes she had more time to pursue other interests.

“I have a job that I truly love, but during the school year I never have any time for some kind of a hobby,” she said.

While recognizing the personal costs, Ms. Malikov models for her students what it means to dedicate oneself fully to solving the problems that present in the moment, and her dedication pays off.

When asked about a particularly exciting moment in her math career, Ms. Malikov said, “It’s very hard to limit it to one moment. Those moments happen almost every day.”

But she did have one example.  Four years ago, Ms. Malikov received an email from a former student whom she had not taught for several years. He wrote that while he was home sick with the flu, he spent time finding the solution to a tricky problem she gave his eighth grade class, which he attached in the email.

Like her teacher Ms. Yudina before her, Ms. Malikov dedicates herself both to the beauty of math, — solving interesting problems — and to her students’ success. When she hears them complain that their courses are not relevant, she is troubled by the lost opportunities.

“I know there’s going to be a time in this person’s life when they’re going to say ‘I wish I did better at that point and took advantage of learning,’” Ms. Malikov said.

Although investing the effort to overcome obstacles may be frustrating, Ms. Malikov assures students that “No good and valuable effort ever goes wasted.”

This, for her, is a guiding principle that applies not just to math, but to all of her teaching and all of her students.