To understand how deeply Ivona Todorovic values public education, you simply need to listen to stories from her past.

The 2023 North Dakota Teacher of the Year was an elementary teacher in the former Yogoslavia in the ’90s during a violent civil war. She and her husband fled and eventually ended up in Grand Forks, arriving in June of 1995.

She resumed her teaching career as a paraeducator, earned both a Bachelor of Science and Master’s degrees in Education, and has been an English Language Learner teacher at Grand Forks Red River High School for the past 17 years.

Ivona Todorovic’s classroom today at Grand Forks Red River is far removed from her classroom in the war-torn former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. “I had 34 third-graders at that time, and our city was bombed,” Todorovic said. “And all what I can see, you know, and I can do in my classroom is just say, ‘Go under the table, open your mouth and let’s just pray this will be over soon.'”

Moving to Grand Forks offered them freedom and peace of mind. “That was the happiest time for a long, long time for us,” she said, “because we knew if anybody knocks on our door, it’s going to be somebody to say hi or ask, ‘What do you need?’ instead of ‘Who are you?'”

Her experiences and world perspective have shaped who she is as an English Learner teacher and person. And Todorovic’s classroom reflects her values and passions. A wall of photos in her classroom displays her extended family. She says every single graduate has contributed to society.

“They are truly the ones that they know … the meaning of freedom, number one,” Todorovic said. “Because most of the … 95% of my case load, they are refugees and kids who had to immigrate, they had to flee or they had to come here, so education really gives them many, many opportunities to follow their path, to follow their passion.”

Todorovic believes power lies in education. Her goals are to provide her students with knowledge to help them become confident leaders and contributors. “Some of them are amazing stories,” she said. “So far, we have three doctors. We had many, many RNs, you know, nurses and auto mechanics and welders.”

Nursing students from the University of North Dakota have visited her class to work with the students. Todorovic believes it’s important to reach beyond the classroom walls. She says she’s the type of teacher who is passionate and leads with the heart.

“I’m always intrigued about learning new things,” she said. “I do think the things that matter happen right here, on the floor in room 313, room 206, 101. The things that matter, they’re happening here. And the thing is I always want to do better than yesterday.”

Ivona is also a member of the Grand Forks Education Association and North Dakota United. She says it’s been important in her development as an educator and also aligns with her values.

“And through all of this life experience, and me, I really believe in public education — so strongly — because public education serves all students, I really believe that with North Dakota United, we work together towards a common goal,” Todorovic said. “We have that power together. … We may not have it all, but together we have it all. … Because we all have different strengths, but when we are united, then we are even better.”

  • This story was produced by Tom Gerhardt for North Dakota United Communications. He can be contacted at