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In 1978, Mohsen Ghaffari emigrated from Iran to the United States with the dream of becoming a teacher. In the years since achieving his dream, he has taught hundreds of students, placing an emphasis on developmentally appropriate instruction and meeting the needs of English language learners. The fifth-grade teacher at North Star Elementary School in Salt Lake City is an outspoken advocate for his students. For all of these reasons and more, he has been named Utah’s Teacher of the Year. He spoke with us about his journey as an educator and what the future has in store for him.
Tell us about your upbringing.
I was born and raised in Iran. My parents were my role models. My mom went to school for two years, and then they pulled her out because she could read enough to read the holy book. It was the same for my dad. He went through school for four years. When he could count enough to count money, they pulled him out of school and put him to work. Between the two of them, they had a sixth-grade education, but education was incredibly important to both of them.
I always looked up to my mom and noticed how she encouraged us to be educators, how she always spoke -highly of teachers as the people who would shape our lives. She would say, “I’ll only help you when you’re sick, or put food in front of you. But teachers are the ones who will shape your life and open up roads for you.” I wanted to make her happy and become a teacher. I became interested in these people who shape lives more than a mother.
So that’s what you did—you became a teacher?
When I graduated from high school, I took an exam in Iran. I passed to become an agricultural engineer. That’s how the system worked. If your grades were good enough to become an electrical engineer, then you became an electrical engineer. I didn’t want to be an agricultural engineer. In 1978, because I passed the exam, I had a choice to leave Iran and continue my education elsewhere. So I left. If I hadn’t passed the exam, I would have had to do the two-year mandatory military service. I faced a horrible future in Iran. So I left and I never looked back. I finished my education here and became a teacher. I did what I always wanted to do.
You have your ESL endorsement and work in a school where more than half of the students speak a language other than English. What’s your best recommendation for teaching ELLs?
One thing we know—and it’s very much based on brain research, [author and speaker] Spencer Kagan always says it—is that we can close the achievement gap, but not by just standing and pointing at a picture. Students must have the opportunity to speak to one another. If you ever come to my classroom, the desks are not in a row, all sitting like soldiers. Students are talking to each other, correcting each other. They’re in heterogeneous seating arrangements. The philosophy is that if every one of them has the opportunity to speak and show and explain, then their academic language improves much faster. In my classroom, I do activities where I’m the guide—obviously I have many focus lessons that I teach—but the rest of the time students are doing and speaking to learn. That has made the difference.
Why is developmentally appropriate instruction so important to you?
One of the first classes we have in college is about child development. We read about Piaget, we read about Erikson. But then that’s left behind. That goes way on the back burner. There’s a lot that has an affect on the development of a child—poverty, struggling families, and the amount of stress a child goes through. Whether we like it or not, it affects the kids who come to our classrooms. If we do something to unload that baggage and the kids are a little freer, a little more trusting in our classrooms, then they perform better.
What do the next few months have in store for you as Utah’s Teacher of the Year?
I have speaking engagements, and in January, there’s a weeklong conference with all 50 state winners. Our names have gone into a pool [for National Teacher of the Year]. In April, the winner will be announced in Washington, D.C. Between now and then, I have a lot of work to do to show them that I deserve to be considered. I enjoy this limelight because I’ve always been one who pushes for kids. I’m very vocal. I hope that being Teacher of the Year will give me opportunities to voice my opinion to a large audience.
Photo: Courtesy of Mohsen Ghaffari