“Our brilliant sun amongst the stars.” That’s how veteran teacher Theresa Coffman describes her colleague Ani Arzoomanian, a third grade teacher at Tuckahoe Elementary in Arlington and recipient of the Northern Virginia Magazine Teacher of the Year Award. “In my 18 years of teaching, I’ve never come across anyone with Ani’s particular combination of extraordinary abilities,” says Coffman. “She’s a natural-born teacher.”
Arzoomanian has been shining her light, both literally and figuratively, on students since the day she arrived at Tuckahoe in August 2014 as a fresh graduate of the University of Rhode Island. She has taught both third and fourth grades during her eight years at Tuckahoe, and she’s played a key role in its sister-school partnership with REACH for Uganda, an Arlington-based nonprofit devoted to improving education and health care in Uganda.
Arzoomanian immediately signed on as a volunteer when the partnership began in 2017, and that summer, she traveled to Uganda to assist REACH staff and students. Arzoomanian now serves as Tuckahoe’s REACH liaison and holds a seat on the organization’s board of directors.
“I was certain that if I aimed high, I could make a difference through REACH, so I searched for items that would help the students,” says Arzoomanian. “One pressing need quickly stood out in my mind: the need for light. Although we take light for granted here, it is often denied to students in most of those villages, where there’s no access to electricity.”
Arzoomanian persuaded wilderness retailer Bigfoot Outdoors to donate 500 solar-powered, hand-crank flashlights to REACH. Thanks to the company’s generosity and Arzoomanian’s efforts, students at Matuwa Primary School no longer rely solely on sunlight to study at home. “Those flashlights eliminate the need for kerosene lamps, which are costly and have dangerous fumes,” says Arzoomanian. “I am proud to be part of the bridge that connects my Tuckahoe students to our sister community in Uganda.”
This year, Arzoomanian organized an auction that raised more than $100,000 for REACH, and she spearheaded a pen-pal campaign between Tuckahoe and Matuwa students. “Ani engages our community in fundraisers that benefit REACH, mindful that not everyone enjoys the comforts we have in Northern Virginia,” says Coffman.
Wide Open Spaces
“If you walk into Ani’s classroom, you will see a beehive of happy productivity,” says Margaret Egan, Tuckahoe’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) teacher and outdoor-learning coordinator.
Arzoomanian incorporates flexible seating in her classroom, where students are allowed to prioritize their assignments and choose where to sit, thus nurturing independence. “You’ll see one student writing at a desk, another working on the carpet, and others reading on beanbag chairs in the corner, yet she has her eye on every one of them, quietly tracking their progress while giving gentle, targeted guidance to those who need it,” says Egan.
Egan worked with classroom teachers to incorporate nature-based learning into their academic content. “Ani consistently replied that she would like her class to participate when I would reach out to staff with offered projects, so I partnered with her often,” says Egan. “Ani is adventurous and willing to bring new things to her students, even if it means extra work for her.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Arzoomanian used her technology savvy to craft virtual field trips, such as one to the Smithsonian National Zoo, and host dynamic author visits as the staff made the unexpected transition to online learning. She also aided teachers who struggled with the new platforms. “In an unprecedented two years, Ms. Arzoomanian pivoted seamlessly to a virtual, then hybrid, then back to a more typical school experience,” says Stephanie McIntyre, Tuckahoe’s former assistant principal.
Egan recalls Arzoomanian teaching students how to grind corn during a unit on Native Americans. “We went outside and gave the kids whole ears of dried corn and told them to grind it into meal,” says Egan. “They had to figure out how to get the corn off the ears, and they searched for rocks to scrape and grind. Students came up with their own innovations, like wetting the corn first or creating a circular barrier of stones to catch flying kernels while grinding. They learned how hard Native Americans had to work to produce food, and we discussed how the shape of different tools yielded different results.”
To teach them about the practice of mummification in ancient Egypt, Arzoomanian gave each of her students a slice of apple, which they carefully wrapped in paper towel “linen.” Students gave their mummies names and amulets with Egyptian symbols before preparing them for the afterlife by burying them in a bowl of natron, made of baking soda and salt. Students later excavated their mummies to discover they had shriveled and weighed less, sparking a discussion of science terms like desiccation.
For a lesson on watersheds,
Arzoomanian strolled with students around a section of the school yard that is modeled on the shape of Virginia, complete with a pond and waterfalls. “Students took notes and made sketches, which was more meaningful than watching a video or looking at a map in a book,” says Egan. “Working with Ani has made me a better teacher,” she adds. That’s quite a compliment, considering Egan has taught for 19 years.
Arzoomanian says she hopes her students will remember their classroom community. “It’s important to develop a culture of trust and respect at the beginning of the year, so we always start with establishing classroom rules and expectations,” she says. “Together, we create a safe space where everyone feels respected, welcomed, and valued because if that’s not in place, academic learning cannot happen.
“People often say that teachers mold children, but we don’t,” Arzoomanian continues. “We guide them, providing a safe and stable environment that fosters creativity and nurtures curiosity. The most important thing a teacher can do is to meet students where they are — academically, emotionally, socially — and then help them develop the joy of being lifelong learners. Witnessing the progress students make throughout the year is an incredible reward because you know it is in direct correlation to your own hard work. The kids touch your life as much as you touch theirs.”
The Whole Package
“Ani is the whole package and everything you could ever want in a teacher,” says Coffman. “Whether guiding a student teacher or organizing a fundraiser, she makes everything appear effortless, but she never shines that spotlight on herself.”
It’s a sentiment that Tuckahoe administrators haven’t overlooked. “Ani is highly committed to the success of all of her students. It is not uncommon for former students and parents to reach out to share updates or let us know how much she has meant to their family,” says McIntyre.
“One of Ani’s greatest strengths is developing rapport and creating positive relationships with our students and families,” says outgoing Principal Mitch Pascal. “I’ve worked with many teachers … in Arlington, and Ani Arzoomanian rises to the top. She is truly deserving of the honor of being named Teacher of the Year.”
This story originally appeared in our October 2022 issue’s Teacher of the Year cover story. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.