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A 'champion of students': Red River educator honored as finalist for state Teacher of the Year Award

Ivona Todorovic lauded for exceptional qualities in her work with students and their families

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Ivona Todorovic, center, an English language instructor at Red River High School, one of four finalists for the 2023 North Dakota Teacher of the Year, reacts during a celebration at Red River High School on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. North Dakota State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, left, and Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Terry Brenner join Todorovic on stage at the Red River High School theater.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — Ivona Todorovic, who has taught English Language Learners at Red River High School for the past 17 years, was honored Thursday, Sept. 1 as one of four finalists for the 2023 North Dakota Teacher of the Year Award.

During the ceremony, which featured remarks by State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, comments were given by sophomore Misan Subba and a video shown with testimonials by current and former ELL students and fellow teachers.  

Principal Kris Arason said “Mrs. T,” as she’s known around school, is “caring, compassionate, engaging and has high standards, and won’t let her students settle for anything less than their best.”

She is also credited with launching RRHS’s annual Culture Night, during which ELL students share aspects of their culture through dance, music, poetry, food and crafts.

Todorovic, a former elementary teacher in Bosnia, “is an example of the American Dream,” said Superintendent Terry Brenner, citing the difficulties of living in the war-torn region of Bosnia, Sarajevo and Croatia, from which she fled to the U.S. in June 1995.

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Because of her background, Todorovic brings a foundation of understanding to her work as an ELL instructor.

“In many ways, she has lived their lives,” Brenner said. Acknowledging the attributes students and other speakers had mentioned, he said, “You won’t find a bigger heart or champion of students.”

Subba, an ELL student, cited 10 reasons Todorovic should be named North Dakota Teacher of the Year, noting that “she gets to know her students (and) she worries about us.

“Her advice has changed people’s lives,” Subba said. “Her lessons are creative and related to our lives. … She makes us feel comfortable in our own skin.”

In a video prepared for the ceremony, students and teachers described Todorovic’s qualities as an educator.

“She puts students at the forefront of everything she does,” one teacher said. Students said she made the school feel like a “second house” for them, and that, in her, they had a “second mom."

Todorovic has taught them to not view language as a barrier, but as an advantage, students said.

After the ceremony, Todorovic said she felt “a little overwhelmed (and) very humbled by the words of students” and others.

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“It shows that when we think we (as teachers) don’t make a difference, we really do make a difference – you have to see that on the difficult days, the happy days …”

Her students “are amazing,” she said, “and they’d don’t know how amazing they are.”

Being different is “actually a good thing,” she said. “It makes you stand out; it means you’re being creative, that you’re brave enough to show up at the table and have (your) voice heard.”

Thursday’s ceremony was intended “to celebrate and lift up the work of teachers” in North Dakota, where about 12,000 teachers work in 171 school districts in 486 buildings throughout the state, Baesler said.

Todorovic was selected as Grand Forks County Teacher of the Year this past spring. To move on in the process, she completed an application that requires “deep self-reflection,” Baesler said. After review of applications by a Department of Public Instruction committee, four finalists were interviewed in Bismarck.  

Baesler and Gov. Doug Burgum will announce the 2023 North Dakota Teacher of the Year Award at 11 a.m. Sept. 19 at the Capitol’s Memorial Hall.

Other finalists for the award are: Megan Wald, business education instructor at Linton High School; Megan Margerum, third-grade English and Language Arts teacher at Northern Cass Elementary School in Hunter; and Abby DuBord, first-grade teacher at Elk Ridge Elementary School, Bismarck.

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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