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From Zenica to Grand Forks: North Dakota Teacher of the Year Ivona Todorovic has a passion for educating

Todorovic has been driven toward the profession since middle school.

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Ivona Todorovic, an English Language teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks, has been named North Dakota’s 2023 Teacher of the Year. (Photo courtesy of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction)
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GRAND FORKS — For some, the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” proves vexing.

For 2022-23 North Dakota Teacher of the Year honoree Ivona Todorovic, the answer is simple.

“My mom told me ‘Ivona, you were born to be a teacher,’ right around when I was in middle school,” Todorovic said.

Todorovic cited her passion for working with children, stemming from her involvement as a child in extracurricular activities such as theater and girl scouts. She enrolled in a pedagogically focused gymnasium, or high school, in her hometown of Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Following completion of primary school, Todorovic attended the University of Sarajevo, graduating with a degree in elementary education. She started teaching in Zenica in 1991, though her career was disrupted by sectarian violence following the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1992.

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“It was surreal,” said Todorovic, who earlier this week was named the state's Teacher of the Year at an event in Bismarck. “Zenica was under siege. There were refugees coming from other parts of Bosnia, and we were sheltering them in the school. I remember having 67 kids at a time in one classroom.”

True to her spirit as a devoted educator, Todorovic attempted to continue teaching through the chaos. However, the conflict eventually reached a point where Todorovic and her family were not safe.

“It was difficult to stay, especially since my husband and I are a mixed marriage, which was forbidden at the time,” said Todorovic.

Todorovic and her husband, Alex, arrived in Grand Forks in 1995. Upon arrival, she faced a different obstacle — academic accreditation.

“I was hired at Lake Agassiz Elementary as a Title One au pair in 1995,” Todorovic said. “My job included helping students with literacy. But in order to teach a class, I needed the proper certification. Everyone at Lake Agassiz encouraged me to get certified at UND, so I studied there part-time until I got my bachelor's, and eventually my master's.”

In 2005, Todorovic became one of two English Language instructors for the Grand Forks School District. The demand for English language instruction necessitated Todorovic teach at six schools throughout the district. She transitioned to her permanent role as English Language instructor for Red River High School in 2009.

Todorovic said her students never cease to inspire her.

“Seeing the progress kids make every day, how they grow into independent learners and acquire academic language — that’s the most rewarding aspect of my job,” said Todorovic.

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Additionally, Todorovic feels her English Language students possess a level of emotional intelligence that not only benefits them as learners, but also enriches the entire community at Red River High School.

“Imagine sleeping in a tent in a refugee camp. Or cooking your family dinner at 6 years old with limited materials,” Todorovic said. “My students and I share experiences, some of which generate triggers, that we work through. It helps me as a teacher see the story behind the kid, to see them as an individual.”

Todorovic says that when her English Language students share their experiences and perspectives with the wider Red River student body, their peers gain empathy and an expanded worldview.

“It’s OK to be different. That’s what makes you special,” said Todorovic. “I think we need to focus on developing a culture of competency, encouraging everyone to understand diverse backgrounds.”

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