January 8, 2019 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
Vanya Angelova was my Physics teacher at ACS from 1993 to 1997. Actually, she is one of just 3 teachers that taught back then and still teach at ACS; in Vanya’s case this means 25 years of ACS experience. Curiously, she gave me the only 2 that I have ever had. It was a small test and I had solved 2 out of the 4 problems but hadn’t even bothered to write down the givens for the 2 problems I couldn’t solve, so bam! 55% (which would have been a 4+ in my previous school). Well, I didn’t make that mistake again, and over the years in Ms. Angelova’s classes I managed to open myself to Physics and even keep a solid 5 throughout high-school. My BFF and roomate’s super powers were Physics and Astronomy. Whenever she spoke about those trips with the Astronomy Club and Ms. Angelova, I was both super excited for her and envious of that spark in her eye. Vanya (yes, I get to call her that now) and I met in November to talk about the International Young Physicists Tournament, the importance of reading books, and the rewards and challenges that come with teaching Physics (for quarter of a century).
So, Vanya, it has been over 25 years since you joined the ACS faculty. What has changed over the years at ACS? What hasn’t?
Of course things change no matter whether we like it or not and I don’t think that change is a bad thing – just the other way around. Sometimes I don’t want certain things to change but they do so we have to live with that, maybe sometimes it’s for the better.
Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Some things change a little bit, some a lot. Certain things turn upside down, and that’s OK.
How did you end up becoming a teacher here?
It was really strange. Actually, I remember walking down Tzar Osvoboditel Blvd. and seeing a poster that said American College – I think it was something about an exam registration. I went to the given address and asked “Are you looking for teachers that would like to teach in English?” and they said “We’re looking for ESL teachers. What would you like to teach?” “I’m a physicist, so I would like to teach Physics.” “It’s too early, the first year there’s no science taught at the school but maybe next year.” So that was the first time I came across the College. I had forgotten all about until at some point the following year, when I saw a documentary about the reopening of the College on TV, while visiting with friends of the family. I wasn’t really paying attention to what was on the screen but there was a phone number that I strangely remembered.
I was teaching at another school at that point, a rather unique school in terms of organization and staff but I wasn’t very happy there, because sciences were not held in high regard. Besides I was really trying to combine English with Physics somehow. I don’t know why but at that particular point that was really interesting to me. Soon after that, I called that number and asked them again whether they were looking for people and this time they said “Yeah, of course, just look at today’s newspaper, there’s an advertisement there.” It was the end of April, beginning of May, still early in the hiring process. I decided to apply and in summer I attended an intensive course in how to teach English, and had a couple of interviews with then President Dr. Whitaker. The first time we met, we talked for such a long time, I didn’t even think about the time, so he ended up saying that unfortunately we had to stop talking because he had other interviewees waiting. Curiously, we did not discuss until the fall whether I was expected to teach in English or not.
It was a great challenge because we had no textbooks. Dr. Whitaker even asked me whether I would like to translate one or find a good existing American one to use. I did not like the way that the things were presented in the existing Bulgarian textbooks, so I chose the other option. It was really hard to find a textbook. Luckily, we had some international students and one of them showed me a textbook he had been using in his previous school abroad which ended up becoming the textbook we ordered and used over the next couple of years. We got it only in time for the second semester, so the first semester I was preparing short handouts. Some of your classmates asked about those handouts years after graduating. I felt a great responsibility for being the first Physics teacher here. This was the mid-nineties, exactly the time when it was real hard to find equipment and everything really; imagine equipping a Physics lab. A Physics lab is a very expensive thing. We did get some stuff from schools abroad but it wasn’t really applicable to our course and the little we could find in stores here was not of good quality. That said, I still use some of those things but I don’t think that they appeal to students. Things are very different now and this is one of the most positive changes.
What do you like most about teaching?
To see the spark in the students’ eyes and also to see how students develop, how they come to think, to see from a different perspective. I’m especially glad when people – students and parents – tell me that they finally saw that Physics is not impossible to study, that they don’t fear it any longer, that they started enjoying it, even though some of them never got excellent grades; it’s the feeling that they got. That’s the most rewarding!
What do you least like about teaching?
Grading the papers. I hate to write really low grades but unfortunately sometimes I have to. I know that for some of the students that would be the thing to motivate them even if that’s not the best motivation, definitely not. Students are really grade-motivated most of the time instead of knowledge-motivated.
What are the challenges you face in teaching Physics?
There are many challenges. For example, I feel that the math background of students today is not enough to start building on in Physics. It’s as if they can’t keep up or understand when you simply manipulate equations. I feel that they are confused, they simply think that they won’t understand just because of that. This is a result of, among other things, the many changes to the curriculum, as well as insufficient time for exercise, including in primary school. Students don’t know how to study, they don’t know how to organize their time better and I know that this is a priority and one of our goals, but students simply study for a particular assignment, test, quiz, whatever and they forget as soon after. I cannot understand how they can fill their heads with so much stuff for such a short time and then completely forget it.
Well, it’s a skill.
It is, but in science it’s not a good one. My father used to say that math is like a chain and when you break it, unless you go back and mend it, you cannot continue. When they complain “Why should we remember all the formulae”, I always reply “You don’t need to remember that many if you remember the concept. If you know the definition for acceleration, then it’s very easy to construct the formula, but you have to be able to read behind the symbols, the basic stuff. Do you start with the alphabet each time you open the book?” You see, we need that particular background.
What were your favorite school subjects when you were a student? Was it science from the start?
It was definitely science from the start, I was in fourth grade when I read a popular science book and was fascinated. My father, who was a mathematician, brought home many popular science and math books, and usually I read them before he even suggested that I did.
I chose Physics because it’s a big challenge. You have to have confidence still, a desire to learn, you have to be curious, to have an imagination.
Sometimes I think that the students now are not imaginative enough. I’m not saying that they are not creative, but when I ask them to visualize something, it’s very hard for them. Recently, I heard on some documentary that this is because of not reading enough books. They like everything to be visual. When I was a kid we used to play a game, we just tried to describe something to the others and tried to imagine what’s going on. So for example someone says, “I’m walking through the woods; to the right I see so and so, and there’s a river.” Then someone else says, “Okay, I’m coming from your left, I’m crossing a meadow and there’s a bridge over the river, so we will meet on the bridge.” And we add colors and many other things that you would describe and try to imagine.
So you are suggesting a solution to this problem – reading more books?
Most people say there is no time for books. I cannot imagine that someone would have trouble finding time for books of all things.
Are you currently reading a book?
I am. Sometimes I am reading several at a time. Unfortunately my ability to read a book overnight is not what it used to be, because of the things I have to do here, you know, at work the next day.
What’s the life of an ACS Physics teacher like? If you had to say it with one word?
Tough. From the viewpoint of the new curriculum that I am dealing with right now, we are trying to come up with different activities, what to do, certain labs to solve problems. If you stick to the curriculum, students don’t get the point. There are certain committees working on designing the curriculum, and there are teachers in those committees, but some of them either don’t want to contradict the authority, the professors from the university, or they simply don’t care what happens to the students. The students definitely get confused; it’s very hard for them to understand the concept, and sometimes they think they understand but when they have to apply it, they are lost. There is no time for exercise. Actually, the new curriculum asks us to squeeze 4 years of material into just 2 years. You choose a certain profile and if it is Math and Science, for example, you will have enough time for Physics, to deepen and enlarge your knowledge, but again, you have to build on what you have already studied in the previous two years. It’s not easy at all.
Who was your favorite teacher when you were a student?
In Physics, I had 4 different teachers in 4 years, some of them good, some – not good at all. In retrospect, I think that I learned something from each one, so I keep telling students that even if you dislike someone, you learn how not to do things. Thinking about favorites, one name comes to mind, Mr. Robson, my English teacher in high school, in Burgas.
Did you always know you would become a teacher when you grew up?
No. I think I imagined myself simply as a scientists in a research center. I worked at a certain institute but it was not exactly as a scientist, I was doing translations and similar work. I remember that as a kid I read and very much liked a book, where the difference between a professor, as in researcher, and a teacher, was defined with this fable: so, an adult talks to a student and asks them what they would like to become and the student says, “I would very much like to become a teacher, or at least a professor.” “You are comparing a teacher to a professor?” “No, I’m not. Everyone can become a professor if they put in some effort, read, and do their job, if they’re persistent. In order to become a teacher, you need a big heart.” This is something I keep thinking about.
If you could change one thing about ACS what would it be?
Maybe sometimes we are too ambitious. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be the top scorer but sometimes it’s too much for all of us, students, teachers, and everyone at the school.
What do you most value in your students?
The ability to think, curiosity. I would very much like them to maintain their curiosity towards learning.
What do you most dislike in people?
What is ACS to you?
It has been most of my life for a long time.
Your ACS memory that you value the most?
It must be with the International Young Physicists Tournament, when we were working very hard, day and night, trying to be the best. We went to Australia for a tournament once. It is done in a different country every year. The ACS IYPT team won the national tournament and was appointed to represent Bulgaria for the first time in 2003. We went To Australia in 2004, Switzerland – in 2005, and our last participation in the international tournament, to Korea, 2007 in. After that, in 2008, the regulations for how the national team is built were changed, so that now, a national team is built by students from different schools around Bulgaria. We had a strong objection to this. We still think that when the team members know each other very well, they are more successful. Since 2008, I think only one ACS student has been elected to the team; that was Victor Kouzmanov, Class of 2014, who in the summer of 2013 went to Taiwan and received a silver medal.
So, for the IYPT, we spent 8 years working on really difficult problems, not like the problems that we solve in class or even at an Olympiad. Certain scientists work on these problems for years and years, so the solution of such a problem could be a PhD thesis. I get very emotional talking about this. We stopped because of the change in regulations but also because it’s not at all easy to prepare a team and to combine this with the many obligations we have as teachers. It takes strongly motivated students, too, as it’s mostly their work.
But yes, the change in regulations did not bring about the results it was aiming for. Actually, one of the better results, an exception, was in 2013 with Victor’s team, though they weren’t better than we were, say, in Switzerland. The actual international tournament’s regulations also changed a little bit; we used to only get awards, like a diploma, now they get medals – according to the number of participants it is decided how many will get gold medals, how many silver, etc. They were stricter with the prizes.
One of my BFFs, Ira Nasteva, Class of 1997, was in your Astronomy Club. She remembers going on a field trip to an observatory, where everyone slept outside under the starry sky, and you sang them lullabies. Do you remember that?
Yes, on the roof. This was one of the first trips to Belogradchik observatory. I also showed them the constellations and told them the myths about them. That was one of the best times. We had a wonderful time at the Rozhen observatory, too.
Back then I simply asked some very good friends of mine, colleagues from the Physics department at the university, who worked at the Belogradchik observatory, to give us a chance to enter and explore the observatory. One of them even came and talked to the students – he had better experience with the telescopes than me – and luckily enough he likes to talk; he can spend hours talking, and it’s very interesting, funny, too. So we went there and it was like a real summer school because we had to take care of our own food and lodgings. I assigned everyone duties – we were in charge of our meals, buying the stuff, cooking. I was surprised that sometimes students weren’t willing to share – they thought that whoever brought the food had exclusive rights over it, a really interesting experience. We spent the days exploring the rocks of Belogradchik and this was something that they liked a lot. Maybe right now I wouldn’t be so willing to take students to explore the rocks of Belogradchik because their attitude has changed a little bit, they don’t hold the respect towards the grown-ups that much now and they think that they can manage, they can take of themselves, which is not entirely true, but yes, back then, we definitely did some risky trails. The daily schedule was something like this: you wake up at noon and then you start cooking, doing stuff, you go for a walk perhaps, in the evening we had the lectures, then when it gets dark, which in summer is about 10 pm or later, we do observations on the roof and it’s way late in the night when you go to sleep.
I remember one other trip, a shorter one with a larger group of students, to the Rozhen observatory. We’ve been to Rozhen several times – in the winter, in the bitter cold of February, in November, and during summer, too. I remember one summer night there when it was particularly warm – if you’ve been there you would have noticed the large telescope there, it’s in a tower and there is a balcony that surrounds the tower and you can go there – so many students were actually afraid to get there because it’s not real solid, more like a grid, and you can see what’s beneath your feet and it’s at least 20-something meters above the ground. We spent most of the night in the telescope tower but, of course, towards dawn we were all on the balcony and these same people, who were afraid to go there during the day, were now peacefully sleeping on that grid. Really nice memory!
What’s your funniest ACS memory?
The look on my colleague Eric Chehab’s face when they visited with us, when my husband brought the computer he was assembling, an old one, he brought it in some plastic fruit basket where we kept it. Eric was really surprised to find out that it worked at all.
What do you consider as your most marked characteristic?
At some point at the beginning of my ACS career most of the students said I am the most patient person they knew, which is very strange because actually I’m not patient at all. In fact, that’s also a comment that comes from a lot of my colleagues; it seems that we have very different perspectives.
What inspires you?
I find Physics very challenging, and maybe that is one thing. Challenging, not only in terms of how to relate the material to the students but also, I’m still really, really surprised by how genius comes up with a particular formula. I like to tell stories about the history of Physics and how certain phenomenon was investigated by different scientists and how they came up with the explanation of something, how they came up with their hypotheses of something.
I think that some of the greatest achievements of humankind are the modern theories in Physics because it’s actually the science that tries to answer the fundamental questions about nature, about how and what governs nature.
In order to understand Astronomy better you definitely need to know Physics better. They’re so interconnected, it’s hard to separate one from the other. Looking at the sky and looking at an atom, they’re so much alike.
How do you like to spend your free time?
If I have free time, depending on what particular amount of free time we’re talking about,
I’d spend it reading, enjoying music, – depending on the mood it will be classical or jazz, rock or folk, the type of real ethno folk from different countries – hiking, another passion of mine, or traveling. I try to do that as much as possible. I definitely like to go to places to which I have already been and I enjoy a lot, you know, it’s just like reading a favorite book twice. When I was young we used to go to a mountain hut close to the place where I lived. Actually, my favorite time of the year was autumn, the parade of the leaves. I know most of the tree and grass types, I can tell edible from poisonous plants. At the first green school I attended, there were two things I was asked to do: one was to identify plants and the other was to help organize an orienteering activity for everyone.
What’s your greatest fear?
Losing my passion for teaching.
Do you have a favorite journey – metaphoric or real?
There are many journeys I’ve done, many I remember, and they are very, very different but one of the latest comes to mind. It was a journey with my daughter and her friend in Hungary, North Eastern Hungary, on the border with Slovakia. We visited a very interesting place, a bath that was in fact a cave and there were many interesting structures there created by the water inside. There was even a star dome – with the constellations inside the cave – it was great fun – and there was also music and different lights that shine on the water and on the structures. So beautiful! Very special, unique indeed! On that same trip we visited another cave, one of the largest caves – it was amazing! When I came back I was surprised to find out that there is a similar place here in Bulgaria, very similar to that bath cave, that has just been discovered somewhere in the Rhodope mountains. I hope that at some point it will be open to visitors, as well.
When and where were you happiest?
I’m not a fan of that question, so I’ll answer in a different way. There is not one particular moment that I would choose but I have seen really wonderful things and if you ask me when I was most surprised, I’d answer that I was surprised to enjoy the midnight sun for a week. I have fond memories of that, in Lapland, Sweden, far beyond the polar circle. I really want to go back there but this time for the Northern light, but I’ll have to do that in winter or in autumn at least – not that I’m afraid of cold per se, but getting older, one gets spoiled and doesn’t deal with cold that well.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It would be something family-related, like Christmas at home with the family.
Coming up! Is there anything that you regret, that you would do differently if you could go back?
Again, I can think of many things and still I don’t know how and whether finally I would be able to decide how I would change something. Maybe it’s the different situations that shape our views and who we are.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Maybe to be a bit less sensitive because it seems on the outside I don’t appear sensitive but on the inside it’s very different.
Do you follow your former students’ success? Do you know who among them went on to do something in the field of Physics or Astronomy?
I try to stay in touch but I’m not a great fan of social media. I need one-on-one contact.
When I meet my former students, I ask them about different things. In many such meetings it is as if there is no time lapse – we get together and we can talk the way we used to before.
Does Physics have an explanation for that?
I doubt that, simply because that’s a very different nature. But maybe Physics has something to do with our interaction just because there has to be, there’s always some awe about Physics shared. Or maybe it’s because of something that we did together. Sometimes I feel as if time has stopped and I can scold them or do something that I wouldn’t normally do with other people. But of course I am really, really pleased when I see they are successful or I still see the spark in their eyes.
What’s your message to ACS alumni?
I haven’t filled in a yearbook for a long time now but I remember that some of my favorite messages that I wrote to leaving ACSers were “Shine on, you crazy diamond!”