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Congrats to MDUSD's 2022-23 Teachers of the Year and Finalists!
Posted 3/11/22

Two MDHS District Teachers of the Year will advance to the county competition



MDHS Multimedia teacher Katalina Gallo


MDHS English and ELD teacher Natasha Paul


The Mt. Diablo Unified School District is pleased to announce that Mt. Diablo High School teachers Katalina Gallo and Natasha Paul have been selected as the two District Teachers of the Year for 2022-23 out of five finalists that also included College Park HS teacher Laima Haider, Pine Hollow MS teacher Dr. Lizette Ortega Dolan and Bancroft Elementary teacher Maria Sajjad. The finalists were selected from the more than 100 outstanding educators from Transitional Kindergarten through grade 12 and adult education who were nominated and who were offered the opportunity to submit a brief questionnaire.
The questionnaires were scored by members of the MDUSD Teacher of the Year Selection Committee and the top scoring individuals were interviewed. The School Board plans to recognize the nominees and finalists at its April 27, 2022 meeting.
Both Gallo and Paul said they were honored to be chosen to represent the District and their school, which they both graduated from themselves (Gallo in 2007 and Paul in 1991). In fact, Gallo was Paul’s student in the Digital Safari Academy that she now leads teaching multimedia to students in grades 10-12. Paul is now teaching 9th grade English in the school’s Architecture, Construction, Manufacturing and Engineering (ACME) Academy, as well as English Language Development to students not yet fluent in English. Next week, the News Update will take a closer look at Haider, Ortega Dolan and Sajjad.


Katalina Gallo

Gallo has taken on leadership roles since she came to MDHS, including leading the WASC accreditation focus group on culture at the school looking at things like equity, community and parent involvement so students feel supported. She also plans “Academy Night,” the school’s open house, which will be held on March 24th. She’s proud that attendance has risen from about 100 before she took the helm to 800 in 2018 and more than 1,000 in 2019. The event was canceled due to the pandemic in 2000 and held over Zoom last year, but she’s excited to bring it back to campus in two weeks.

She said five different people nominated her as Teacher of the Year, including Paul and three other coworkers, and a student. Her approach to teaching is that she treats students as equals. “I’m not the center of the classroom,” she said. “We all are and it’s our interaction, which is what makes the instruction and the learning happen.”

Having discussions with her students about their ideas and issues that are important to them is a key part of her role, she added. “Student voice is really important to me. I want students to feel that I listen to them and that what they say matters — especially students at Mount — because they’re kind of used to having their voices silenced. A lot of them have unfortunate histories with teachers that didn’t listen or that wanted their students to sit down and be quiet, so I think it’s important to make sure that they have a voice, especially in an arts classroom.”

Building trust with her students is also important, she said. “A lot of times in classrooms it is about the mind, but with this population of kids, it’s important to make them feel safe. If the classroom doesn’t feel safe, learning can’t happen. The foundation is trust. They know they can trust me. They tell me things. I want them to feel that they can talk to me about the things going on outside of the class because it does affect them, so how could I not want to know?”


Her students said they appreciate the relationships she builds with them. Senior Samara McDonald said: “She’s really cool - the way she interacts with every student no matter where they’re from and how they are, it makes you feel like she’s your best friend.” Senior Elaine Torres added: “In general, I think it’s very inspiring to see a young female Latina teacher become a Teacher of the Year. It’s inspriring to see her succeed.” Senior Deyvon Seals said he first had Gallo as a teacher during distance learning and found her to be very welcoming. “She individually got to know each of her students personally and you could speak to her about anything during open hours,” he said. And Senior Noe Boyd said Gallo’s teaching is also supportive. “She makes it simple even if there’s complicated steps,” she said. “She goes through the steps and makes it easier to and goes understand."

Gallo said the primary reason she hoped to be selected as Teacher of the Year was for her students. “I wanted them to see that amazing things happen at this school. It has kind of a bad reputation, so some kids have kind of a defeatist attitude. I wanted to show them I went to the school, look at what I can accomplish and you can do anything you want to do. That’s what drives everything I do here. I really want other people to see the school I do - that it’s a beautiful place full of amazing students who are just as capable and just as smart as any other student.”


GalloMDUSD Teacher of the Year Katalina Gallo (center) stands with students Samara McDonald and Deyvon Seals (left) and Noe Boyd and Elaine Torres (right).  


Natasha Paul

Paul, who started teaching at MDHS 19 years ago, said she doesn’t know who nominated her and she was surprised to be chosen as a Teacher of the Year because she admitted to the selection committee that she has been on emotional roller coaster during the pandemic.


“This last year has been really, really hard,” she said, explaining that she struggled to juggle all of her responsibilities as a wife, mother, teacher, daughter, friend and a graduate student pursuing and administrative credential and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Something had to give, so she made the difficult decision to take a break from graduate school, she said, tearing up as she recalled the stress she felt at the time.

But the stress didn’t stop when she returned to school and realized that many of her students were far behind in their learning and in their ability to trust her and to interact with each other.

“I keep coming back every single day and I keep loving them,” she said.

Like Gallo, she views building relationships with students as a key part of her job, but she concedes it was challenging last year during distance learning. Yet, she glows when she talks about the connections she has made despite obstacles.

For example, she beamed as she recalled what a student told her in the last minute of the last period of the school year on Zoom last year. “Everyone was leaving the Zoom and she said: ‘True confession time - your voice has been so comforting to me this year.’” Touched, Paul thanked her, explaining that sometimes it was hard to know if she was getting through.


Yet, her students say she is. Current and former students, as well as students she doesn’t even teach, love to hang out in her classroom before school, at lunch and after school because of the warm and friendly atmosphere and the snacks she provides when they’re hungry. Student Asael Escalante said he knows Paul is concerned about students’ mental health as well as their academics. “She really does care about her students very deeply, like a second family,” he said. Student Nathaniel Leyva added: “She helps everybody and makes it fun.”


Former students Kahlani Cravanas, Iris Rivas and Shirley Guzman said Paul was their favorite teacher last year during distance learning. They said she explains the curriculum well and helped them adapt to online learning. “Just overall, she’s amazing,” Kahlani said. Iris added: “She was one of the first teachers I actually liked because she was patient and she helped me actually want to come to high school. Being online in her class, I felt more social, even though we were at home and by ourselves.” Shirley said Paul was supportive and understanding about school and family issues. “She was a super duper good teacher," she said. "A lot of teachers criticize you for not doing well, but she would help you do better, would try and lift you up and help you to be a better student.”


To help build a sense of community in class this year, Paul practices mindfulness with students and invites them to sit in a circle to share games, ideas, and discuss a podcast they are listening to as an alternative to reading a book.

“I have really high expectations for myself and for others,” she said, adding that she enforces rules such as no cell phones by explaining the “why” behind the rules. “We have to say ‘no’ and be the bad guy sometimes, but I do it with love.”

Outside of the classroom, Paul stands up for her students, even if it means going outside of her comfort zone by voicing concerns about the school's dress code.


Paul said she was honest in her Teacher of the Year interview about her struggles and doubted she would be selected as Teacher of the Year after making herself so vulnerable.

“Teaching isn’t perfect,” she said. “It’s messy sometimes. But what matters is you just keep moving forward and growing and reflecting. I was really surprised. They saw that in me and that’s very validating and it gives me so much hope, if that’s the guiding post for what they want."



MDUSD Teacher of the Year Natasha Paul (in yellow shirt) cheers on students as they play "Bop It" as a warm up community-building activity during her 9th grade English class.


Gallo and Paul are two of approximately 20 other educators who will be named Teachers of the Year for their school districts. Each of them becomes a nominee for the Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year program, which is coordinated by the Contra Costa County Office of Education. Four finalists will be announced in May. The winners of the County Teacher of the Year program will be announced Sept. 22 in a ceremony at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, where all District Teachers of the Year will be honored.


2022-23 MDUSD Teacher of the Year finalists:

Katalina Gallo, Mt. Diablo High School

Natasha Paul, Mt. Diablo High School

Laima Haider, College Park High School

Dr. Lizette Ortega Dolan, Pine Hollow Middle School

Maria Sajjad, Bancroft Elementary School


Most Recent Past MDUSD Winners:

2021-22 Elizabeth McDonagh and Chelsea Ridenour

2020-21 Dylan Bland and Beth Miller Bremer


Previous MDUSD Winners also named County Teachers of the Year:

2019-20 Shay Kornfeld

2018-19 Kelly Perkins (State Finalist) and Rosie Reid (State Teacher of the Year and National CA Rep)

2016-17 Shauna Hawes (State Finalist)

2003-04 Liane Cismowski

2001-02 Janet Gower (State Teacher of the Year)

1996-97 Judy Moon

1993-94 Kathy Prasch

1990-91 Janice Bergamini (State Finalist)

1988-89 Shannon Merrill

1987-88 Carol Sparks

1986-87 James Wiese

1985-86 James Sayre

1983-84 Victor Hansen

1981-82 William Thomas (State Finalist)

1979-80 Ann Rowe and Joseph Hipple

1978-79 Nancy Burton