Sitting in the back of the room of his fifth-grade physics class, 12-year-old Kiril Tochkov was just another number at his school in Sofia, Bulgaria. Literally.
The teacher would ask a question and call on No. 17 for the answer. Or maybe it was No. 22’s turn.
One of the teachers liked to play games.
“What day is today?” the teacher would ask. “Today is the 29th, minus four, plus three, divided by two. That number will be answering the question.”
Panicking, the class of about 30 students did the calculations. Whose turn would it be this time?
Assigning numbers was a typical Communist practice. It certainly wasn’t any different at School 133 Alexander S. Pushkin.
There was no room for dissent in the classroom, where portraits of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov hung above the blackboard. There was only one correct interpretation of Russian novels and Bulgarian translations of works by Shakespeare and Moliere. Those who disagreed were sent to the principal’s office, suspended or expelled. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria was nearing its demise by the late 1980s, but the system still had enough strength to bully its children into silence.
“You either keep quiet and survive, or you play the hero and they smash you,” Tochkov said. “And I wanted to go on to university, so I needed good grades.”
Almost 25 years later and more than 6,000 miles away, Tochkov sits in the back of a classroom again, not for a physics lesson but to listen to one of his students deliver a 40-minute presentation on the colonial impact on India’s economy. Now a professor of Asian economics at Texas Christian University, he instructs his class to take notes for their test.
“Wake up!” he teasingly admonishes his group of about 30 students, jolting them into consciousness.
Many of the classroom privileges Tochkov’s students take for granted are things that were denied to him as a student in Bulgaria. Tochkov, whose philosophy is the Confucian principle of teaching by example, knows from experience exactly what kind of professor he doesn’t want to be.
Tochkov cultivated a fascination with Asia that began after his parents returned from a business trip from Japan in the mid 1980s. His interest in Asia followed him to Germany, where he finished high school after the Bulgarian Communist regime collapsed in 1989.
After finishing high school, he enrolled at Heidelberg University in Germany, where he earned a master’s degree in economics and Chinese studies. At the time, the bachelor’s degree did not exist under the higher education system in Germany and other European countries.
Unlike the small, intimate Chinese studies classes Tochkov was enrolled in, the economics lectures he sat in with hundreds of other students were dry and impersonal, with some professors reading their lecture like a script.
Professors are considered “academic gods” because the process to become one in Germany is extremely rigorous, Tochkov said.
“Once you get tenure, you have gray hair; you have a long career behind you; you have published many books and articles; you have achieved notoriety in your field,” Tochkov said.
For some professors, their status was married to an air of pretentiousness.
“It was very difficult in Germany to get a hold of professors,” Tochkov said. “He would be rarely there. You had to schedule an appointment with his secretary. He is very important. His door is closed.”
Josiah Bender, a 2007 TCU graduate and technical representative for Houston-based investment company Invesco Aim, said he visited Tochkov’s office plenty of times for help with his assignments.
“It was at times chaotic because there were a lot of people there from different courses,” Bender said. “He definitely did take the time to make sure all his students were taken care of, despite him being extremely busy.”
Unlike the German higher education system, the American system is modeled with market economics in mind, Tochkov said.
“We view students here as customers,” Tochkov said. “They come here; they pay a lot of money to get an education, so we want to attract as many students as possible. We want to attract the best students as possible.”
Tochkov joined the economics faculty at TCU in 2005 after earning a doctorate in economics at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
John Harvey, professor of economics and former department chair, said Tochkov was a perfect fit because of his international experience.
“He is a Bulgarian who went to college in Germany and the United States who is an expert on China,” Harvey said.
Tochkov – who speaks Bulgarian, Russian, English, German and Chinese – has traveled to China, Mongolia, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, not to mention several countries in Europe.
After teaching at Binghamton, where he had to stand before 300 students for an introductory course, Tochkov likes what a small university has to offer.
“I was able to work more closely with students, learn their names, grade homework,” Tochkov said, his desk piled with assignments.
Peyton Bryant, who took introductory macroeconomics with Tochkov in spring 2008, remembers when he ran into Tochkov on east campus last fall, months after the class had ended. Bryant said the two recognized each other on sight, and Tochkov, instead of nodding in acknowledgement and walking past, actually stopped and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.” Bryant, who is currently taking Asian economics with Tochkov, said the professor has not forgotten his name since.
“I like having that connection with a professor,” Bryant said.
Students in Tochkov’s class speak up and ask challenging questions, as he was not allowed to do growing up in Bulgaria.
“So the model is basically worthless?” a student argues with him in class, questioning the practicality of the Solow economic growth model. Tochkov admits that the model’s impracticality is one of its flaws, but he explains that it helps illustrate the relationship between capital and labor.
“You’re so critical of the model; I haven’t even started teaching and you’re already disappointed in it,” Tochkov jokes. “Maybe you should go to an advanced economics class and leave me alone with my super model.”
The classroom rings with laughter.
“Now that I’m depressed, I have to continue,” Tochkov says in a mock sad tone, prompting a second round of laughter.
Summoning to memory his classroom experiences in Bulgaria, Tochkov confessed that the contrast between the two systems sometimes makes him feel like he is from another planet.
Standing in front of his students inside Room 264 in Dan Rogers Hall, however, Tochkov seems to be right where he belongs.