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The concept of “inverse” is central to Algebra of all kinds. For example, the inverse of a number is, under addition, the negative of that number, making -5 the inverse of 5. Meanwhile, the reciprocal of a number is the inverse of that number under multiplication, making 1/5 the inverse of 5. I found myself thinking of this recently as I write my penultimate column for this space, and realize that the two roles celebrated in this blog, that of professor and that of mother, are, in many ways, reciprocals of each other. As I have grown in each role, I have realized that my role as a mother has helped me to be a better professor, while my role as a professor has helped me to be a better mother.
In the years before I became a mother, I would sometimes look at the women professors who were mothers and admire the job they were doing. There seemed to be more comfortable around young people than I was, and to have an ease with authority with which I was still struggling. Later, I found that becoming a mother helped me to find my voice as a leader in the classroom. Indeed, it was not long ago that I pushed back against some students who wanted me to move a test to a later week using the phrase “I have a teenager; I know how to say ‘no’.”
While “organized” is never a word I would use to describe myself, either as a mother or a professor (“thank heavens, I didn’t become an accountant- who ever heard of an ‘absent minded accountant’?”), having responsibility for a tiny life has helped me to focus on the organizational aspects of my role as a professor that involve nurturing my students. It was the experience of being able to access my daughter’s grades online that encouraged me to invest in the time to learn to post my student’s grades on our own learning management system, even though it seemed that our college was purchasing a new system almost every year. Thankfully, once I learned our current system, we have not switched for some time.
As some of my students over the years have been mothers themselves, I have found that teaching students who have navigated the world of motherhood has brought with it great rewards. I remember one woman who came to me after raising six children, including one with serious special needs. She sat in my office in tears, telling me that she never really understood Math, and that she just didn’t know how she was going to pass my class. I assured her that if she could raise six children, she could pass my class, which she did. And some of my students gave me great advice when I suddenly found myself responsible for a tiny infant. I am someone who knows what it feels like to be good at something, and this was definitely not that feeling.
I have occasionally used skills learned in the classroom to help my daughter with her homework. This is generally helpful, except for the time I told a fifth grader that angles are measured in “radians,” instead of “degrees.”
I have sometimes been a “fly on the wall” as I listened to conversations from students in the minutes before class. Thanks to those moments, I overheard bits of information that are useful for parenting. Many times, I was happy to hear a judgmental tone in the voices of my students as I overheard that some students use medicine designed for AD/HD as an off-label study aid, and, and the real meaning of seemingly innocent phrases. Apparently, an evening of “Netflix and chill” probably does not involve a television set. Who knew?
As I continue to improve in my attempts to be both the best professor and mother I can be, each of these roles informs the other. Although my days as “Math Geek Mom” are limited, there is still much to learn as I seek to become a better professor, and, most importantly, the best mother I can be.
And so, readers, in what ways do your roles of parent and professor inform and augment each other?