For many years, the stereotype of a secondary school math teacher in Russia was a severe woman in a plain suit, wearing thick glasses. By definition, this imposing math “witch” (who students have dubbed with the somewhat pejorative diminutive, matematichka) smiled just twice a year—on March 8, when students gave her flowers, and on September 1, School Day, when her annual reign as psychic torturer begins, armed with “square roots,” “perpendicular lines” and “pi.”
Boris Kozulin, 42, a teacher at Moscow’s Gymnasium #1567, could not differ more from this overblown stereotype. His students use his “formal” first name and patronymic only during classes, between themselves calling him simply “Borya” or “Apelsin” (“Orange”)—due to his bright red hair. Kozulin has borne this nickname since the days when he himself was a student at this school.
Kozulin’s disarming appearance actually worked in his favor when he recently competed to become the moderator of an NTV program to teach math over the airwaves. All the previous candidates put the jury to sleep with their overly-academic mannerisms and speech, whereupon the director dryly intoned: “Next ...”
“But I decided to sort of shake him up and take him off the beaten track, just like I do in my math classes,” Kozulin said. “I recited some rule and then said: ‘Read the magazine Solve Problems With Us and stay tuned for the math program by Leonid Zvavich [one of Kozulin’s colleagues].’”
Kozulin was so relaxed and natural that the cameraman shooting his screen test asked: “And on what channel could I find this program?”
Kozulin explained it was just a joke, and the NTV people gained an immediate appreciation for the red-haired math teacher’s off-beat style.
It is a style that works equally well with his students. On September 1, when school begins in Russia, Kozulin always starts off his classes with jokes and easy banter. The point, Kozulin said, is to “make the students understand that math is about more than just dry quizzes and equations; it is also about witty puzzles and elegant, logical solutions.”
Kozulin said he decided to teach math as early as the ninth grade, and he dreamed of returning to his alma mater to do it. After graduation, he enrolled in a teaching institute and was able to return to School #1567 as a teacher when he was just 21. He recalls how a spirit of freedom and openness began to spread over the school at that time—a spirit the still-young Kozulin strives to maintain to this day.
In fact, many of Kozulin’s students hang around after math class to spend more time with their beloved teacher. For it just so happens that Kozulin is also a well-known professional fisherman and vice-president of the Moscow Fishermen’s Society; he devotes all of his leisure time to his fishing circle, called “Mormyushka.” Only the best students and most passionate fishermen from Kozulin’s math classes are admitted into Mormyushka, which now counts 15 members. He has also organized students into a team (the “Merry Carp”) which regularly participates in fishing competitions.
“Last year, one boy from the Merry Carp won third place in a city fishing competition,” Kozulin said. “This is an amazing result for a kid! By the way, in our school, many had concluded that this boy was a hopelessly recalcitrant hooligan. And I say that’s rubbish: by definition, a good fisherman can’t be a hooligan!”
Kozulin said, however, that there are in fact too many children of well-off parents in his school—parents who don’t take the time to communicate with their children, so the kids get vexed at their parents, feel lonely and thus act out at school. “I learned how to cope with this long ago. It is just that the school must become a home for the child, and we all—teachers and classmates—one family!”
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567