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The two people who most inspired Mohsen Ghaffari to teach had very little education themselves.
Ghaffari's mother was taken out of school in second grade to work in a rug factory in Iran. His father didn't make it past fourth grade. Yet education was important to them.
"They were highly intelligent people who did not have an opportunity to become educated," Ghaffari said. "I think they were incredibly smart, and they wanted a better life, so their emphasis was on education."
That emphasis motivated Ghaffari to move to the United States more than 35 years ago to teach. On Friday, the North Star Elementary school educator found out that he's been named Utah's 2015 Teacher of the Year.
Ghaffari, 55, said he never expected to be recognized for his work teaching fifth grade, though he acknowledged he takes it very seriously. At school, he's known for always wearing a tie to work (in addition to kicking butt during the school's annual students versus teachers soccer match).
But those who work with and know Ghaffari say the honor is no surprise.
"He deserves it because he's not afraid to do things that he knows are good for students," said Ashlee Ekins, a second-grade teacher at North Star who helped nominate Ghaffari for the award. "He just really knows what his students need and he stands up for them."
She said he does a lot of hands-on activities with his students to help them learn material, such as asking them to create models of the earth showing its composition, or to write books which they then present at a publishing party.
And North Star Principal Lew Gardiner said Ghaffari is a natural-born educator, in addition to being a hard worker.
"His class is very well ordered," Gardiner said. "There isn't any wasted time. The kids know what's expected and they recognize that he cares about them."
Parent Antonia Scott wrote: "He goes out of his way to help the kids reach their goals. Besides teaching the core curriculum, Mr. Ghaffari is excellent at teaching life lessons. Kindness and respect are very important to him."
Ghaffari tries to base his teaching on brain research and child development principles. He's a fan of strategies advocated by psychologist and author Spencer Kagan.
For example, he said, giving children opportunities to speak about concepts helps them learn better. For a math lesson, he might give small groups of students problems. Ghaffari will have each child take a turn solving the problem while the others watch closely and correct any mistakes. Each child will then have two minutes to explain his reasoning to the group after taking his turn solving the problem.
"I do things based on what their brains are capable of learning," Ghaffari said.
It's a strategy that can be helpful for both children who speak English at home and those learning the language, he said. North Star serves many refugee children, and most of the school's kids come from low-income families as well.
Though Ghaffari was never a refugee, he said, in some ways, he can relate to them as an immigrant. When Ghaffari moved to the United States, he spoke very little English.
But he came to America because he wanted to teach. In Iran, he was accepted for college, but for agricultural engineering. He didn't want to do that.
"I always wanted to be a teacher and I left Iran to be a teacher," Ghaffari said. "I don't know if there's anything else I can do."
Ghaffari met his wife in college in Delaware. She was from Utah, so that's where they ultimately chose to live and raise their son, now 23.
Throughout his career, Ghaffari said, his wife was always his biggest supporter, reminding him of how well he teaches.
Sadly, she passed away in May after battling multiple sclerosis.
"She never saw or heard any of these recognitions I'm being given," Ghaffari said. "She always was the one giving me this recognition."
But Ghaffari said he doesn't measure his success as a teacher in awards or grades. Rather, he's gratified when past students return to thank him for the time he spent with them.
"If I've made them like academics," he said, "then I think that's my success story."
As Teacher of the Year, Ghaffari wins $10,000 and will advance to the national competition. He also receives an interactive SMART board for his classroom, a laptop computer from PC Laptops and a $250 gift card from McDonald's. He'll also meet with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., and get to attend space camp in Alabama in the summer.
Matthew R. Baldwin, a language arts teacher at Whitehorse High in Montezuma Creek, and Patricia R. Drussel, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Dixon Middle School in Provo, were named runners-up and each receive $4,000.
A committee with representatives of the state Office of Education, the Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association, last year's Utah Teacher of the Year Allison P. Riddle, principals and superintendents selected Ghaffari from among 21 nominations from school districts and charter schools.