It may be easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of the first day of school at Fairlawn Elementary, but it's hard to miss Ibrahim Mouzaoui.

At 6-foot 11-inches tall, Mouzaoui, a former Algerian professional basketball player, is one of 69 new teachers hired by the Santa Maria-Bonita School District for the 2017/18 school year, which kicked off Monday.

Already tri-lingual, he will teach physical education at Fairlawn and plans to learn Spanish to be an inspiration to his students, many of whom are learning English, according to the district.

Mousaoui shuffled through hallways on his first day as a giant among children. Although his large frame gave him an edge on the basketball court, it created a unique challenge for his first day at Fairlawn.

"Students were a little bit intimidated by my size," he said, adding that once they became more comfortable with him, they began to pepper him with questions about his travels and childhood in Africa.

Born in Algiers, Algeria, in what he described as a neighborhood "infested with drugs and violence," Mouzaoui recalls that sports -- specifically basketball -- helped keep him on a straight path.

"I grew up around sports," he said, "they kept me away from dark spaces. If my basketball coach did not see potential in me and lend a helping hand, I probably would not be here. Sports saved my life."

Joining the Algerian National Team at 16, Mouzaoui said that while he enjoyed his professional career, he did not find a sense of fulfillment from it.

"Gandhi said, 'the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,'" Mouzaoui said, "but when I was a professional basketball player, I was not at the service of anyone. I wasn't very happy. I was making a decent amount of money, but I did not get the joy I get [from teaching.]"

With little support and limited language proficiency, in 2005 Mouzaoui moved to Chicago to work and perfect his English. After working toward fluency for several years, he enrolled at North Park University and later graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education. He taught physical education at the Mary E. Courtenay Language Arts Center in Chicago for three years before accepting the job at Fairlawn.

"My class is not recess or free time; it's very structured -- we have standards and learning objectives," he said. "I feel like [the students] are in their first day bubble, but once they step on the basketball court it's a done deal."

Mouzaoui said he plans to use the physical education program as a means to develop and reinforce fundamental life and social skills, but also as a way to create a unique bond between his students.

"If you're a quitter, sports will teach you how to keep going. They teach you consistency; they reinforce social skills," he said. "There is a unique connection created by physical activity -- we sweat together, fall together, cry together and smile together."

He believes that physical education teachers should "advocate for [their] subject" when crafting lesson plans, and intends to integrate his diverse background into the curriculum, offering students the ability to "travel through sports."

"We may do a movement on pétanque, a famous sport played in southern France, or spikeball, a version of volleyball. We may even touch back on games played by Native Americans or even Mayans," he said.

As he settles into the school and community, Mouzaoui hopes to become an inspirational figure for his students. He said he hopes to use his experience as a way to influence and encourage his students to never give up when faced with difficulty or adversity.

"As long as you put the effort that is needed, you will make it -- and you will make it big," he said.


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