CONCORD, CA (Mar. 24, 2022) — Mt. Diablo High School teachers Katalina Gallo and Natasha Paul were selected last month as the two Mt. Diablo Unified School District Teachers of the Year for 2022-23. The two women’s connections to the oldest school in the district run deep as they both also graduated from Mt. Diablo.
They will represent the district as nominees for the Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year competition, which will announce its winners in September.
The pair were selected from five finalists that also included teachers Laima Haider of Pleasant Hill’s College Park High, Dr. Lizette Ortega Dolan of Pine Hollow Middle School in Concord and Maria Sajjad of Bancroft Elementary in Walnut Creek. The two MDUSD finalists were selected from more than 100 educators nominated throughout the district.
Both Gallo and Paul said they were honored to be chosen to represent the district and their alma mater. Paul graduated in 1991 and Gallo in 2007. In fact, Gallo was Paul’s student in the Mt. Diablo Digital Safari Academy that she now leads, teaching multimedia to students in grades 10-12.
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 this Thursday.
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, Gallo added. “Student voice is really important to me. I want students to feel that I listen to them and that what they say matters.” 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?”
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. 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.”
Paul started teaching at MDHS 14 years ago. Like Gallo, she views building relationships with students as a key part of her job. 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.”
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. “Teaching isn’t perfect,” she said. “It’s messy sometimes. But what matters is you just keep moving forward and growing and reflecting.”
Gallo and Paul are two of approximately 20 other educators who will be named Teachers of the Year for their school districts in the county. 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
Jay Bedecarré is a long-time resident and writer in Concord and Clayton. He began his newspaper writing career while still a senior at Mt. Diablo High School and he has been part of The Pioneer since its inception in 2003. Jay also operates Bay Area Festivals, presenting events around the San Francisco Bay Area including Bay Area KidFest annually in Downtown Concord.