When people learn that I am both a full professor of Mathematics and an Economist who studies the economics of nonprofit organizations, they are often confused. “What do you teach?” is the common question that follows, to which there is a quick answer, a short answer and a long answer. The quick answer is “everything in math”, the long answer is “everything in math, especially calculus and statistics, the basis of economics”, and the long answer is “everything in math; since we are too small to specialize much, the full time faculty in our department need to be able to teach everything.” In the course of teaching everything, I sometimes find myself realizing how similar some topics are to other topics. For example, difference equations, using discrete math, are very similar to (but not identical to) differential equations, which use calculus. I thought of this type of relationship when I recently found myself discussing the relationship between being a parent and being a teacher with the parent of one of my daughter’s friends. He is the vice principal of a high school in a nearby town, and had recently won an award for being an outstanding vice principal in our state.
It is not surprising that parenting and teaching have a lot in common, since, in a very real sense, parents are the first people to teach children about the world around them. We teach them how to drink from a cup, how to crawl and how to walk, the different colors and how to say “please” and “thank you.” However, there is a limit to how much we can teach them, and so we eventually send them to school where they are taught by people who are experts in teaching. For me, this moment came when my daughter was less than one year old, and I realized that she needed to be around other children to learn social skills. Playing with mommy was not going to teach her all that she needed to know about being a “big kid.”
This award winning parent of my daughter’s friend said that he keeps pictures of his children in his office. When one of his students does something particularly horrible, he sometimes points to the pictures and says “my children would not do something as stupid as what you just did, and they are all younger than you.” Indeed, I recently found myself telling a particularly insistent group of students who were begging for something I didn’t want to give them, “I can take this- I have a daughter in grammar school, and so I know how to say ‘no’.” Indeed, I think that I have become a better teacher since becoming a parent, and I know that being so intricately involved in the learning process on a daily basis has helped me to become a better parent.
My daughter has already started to think about what she will do when she grows up, and her latest choice is to be a paleontologist, which, coincidentally, is what I wanted to be when I was about her age. She asked me recently “but can I also be a mom, too?” I told her that of course she could. She then asked me how she would take care of her children. Trusting that the balancing acts we all do will be easier by the time she becomes a mother, I assured her “you will find a way to work it out.” I can already see that she will be a fabulous mother some day, and I suspect that she would make a great scientist, too.
And when she does become a parent, she will, in many ways, be assuming the role of the first teacher for the little people I will someday call my grandchildren.