Meet the San Diego Unified School District 2020 Teachers of the Year!

Posted: Tuesday, May 5th 2020

This school year will be remembered as one when the entire San Diego Unified community worked through unforeseen challenges to ensure a continuity of learning for students. Leading this charge were the thousands of teachers who deliver education to San Diego students every day.

If there’s one word that would sum up the more than 6,000 San Diego Unified teachers this school year, adaptability might be the most appropriate. It certainly applies to this year’s distinguished group who have been recognized as the district's 2020 Teachers of the Year.

Although teachers were selected for this recognition before schools closed in March over safety concerns brought on by the COVID-19 health crisis, the move to Distance Learning only underscores each recipient’s well-deserved honor. These are your 2020 San Diego Unified Teachers of the Year.

Elementary School Teacher of the Year 

Kelly Young

Lindbergh Schweitzer Elementary School
Grade 4/5 General Education

Kelly Young didn’t wait for the news that school might be shut down to begin putting her online plans in place. She began using a program called Class Dojo ahead of time, just in case.

“We started prepping a week before we closed and I started Distance Learning on March 16,”  Young said. Since then, her combined class of fourth- and fifth-grade students at Lindbergh Schweitzer has been participating in online classes, live streaming and turning in completed assignments.

Lindbergh Schweitzer Principal Victoria Peterson calls Young extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and says the proof comes from Young’s students. “Kelly is a spectacular teacher,” Peterson said. “She makes learning so fun for the kids. Her parents tell me over the weekend they talk about her classroom.”

A native San Diegan who has called Clairemont home for nearly 34 years, Kelly Young jumped at the chance in 2009 to teach at Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary, the school she had grown up next to. Her sense of community was strong from the moment she stepped on campus, and she has been actively engaged with families and the community from day one.

Her classroom is a melting pot of abilities, ethnicities, religions and languages that reflect the diverse Clairemont community. Her teaching philosophy is to establish a community that promotes equal opportunities for all students who walk through her classroom door. Her goal is to offer an educational experience that is not only academically rigorous but also civically responsible, culturally supportive, globally aware, technologically enriched and community focused. Every aspect of her classroom has been carefully designed to heighten student success.

“Kelly uses what she knows about each student, and connects this to their readiness, the various cultures, interests, and motivations that identify multiple access points to increase engagement and success,” Peterson said in her letter of recommendation. “Compassion, creativity and critical thinking are three of the values she instills in her students every day. Her classroom is a place where students feel comfortable.”

She considers herself to be a “24-hour” teacher, one whose commitment does not end with the bell, whose week extends in the weekend and whose commitment to the teaching profession is apparent throughout the year. Kelly is a member of her school’s PTA, PBIS, and School Safety Committee and was the secretary of the Site Governance Team (SGT). She led the School Smarts Parent Engagement Program and began an outreach program for families at the Islamic Center of San Diego, that is located one block from her campus. She recently spearheaded the site name change efforts.

Kelly received her B.A. in Liberal Studies with a specialization in science, and Multiple Subject Teaching Credential, from San Diego State University. She earned her Masters in Education with a specialization in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) from University of San Diego.  She is GATE-certified and has a Supplemental Science Authorization.

Congratulations, Kelly Young, on being selected the 2020 San Diego Unified Teacher of the Year at the Elementary Level.

Middle School Teacher of the Year  

Paula Richardson

Wilson Middle School
Grade 6, 7, 8 Music

Two things were a priority in Paula Richardson’s family when she was growing up: music and education. Every person in her family studied music in some form. Her father was an accomplished pianist, composer and arranger, and taught music at a private K-8 school. Her mother was an accomplished singer and a preschool teacher. In school, Paula played the violin in the orchestra, drums in the band, sang in the choir, and participated in talent shows and musicals. She never considered not pursuing music as an adult and chose to major in music in college.

Growing up surrounded by family with strong musical and educational influences made Paula’s choice to become a music educator an easy one. She began teaching at Wilson Middle School in 2007. During her tenure, she has proven herself to be an exemplary teacher, building strong relationships with her students, parents and colleagues. Under her guidance, the music program at Wilson has blossomed. Her musical offerings include beginning and advanced band, beginning and advanced orchestra, drum line, mariachi ensemble, choir and directing after-school theatre musical productions.

In all cases, Richardson encourages students to stick with their program once they begin, because she knows the hard work pays off.

 “I get to see them go from making honking sounds and barely getting anything out of their instrument or their voice and then growing to have this music ability,” Richardson said.

While Richardson realizes Distance Learning may be daunting for both students and teachers, she’s looking forward to the new opportunities that are being presented.

 “I’m excited for what’s coming,” Richardson said. “This is different, but it’s also a really cool time to be in education. We’re not going to come back the way that we were before. That’s scary and a little sad but it’s also exciting because I’m a part of this big change in education.”

Wilson Principal Dave Downey has seen Richardson’s impact through the number of musical options Richardson provides students.

“She has hosted full productions after school so her kids could participate,” Downey said. “She has run a drum line, a full jazz band, a guitar club and just last year she started a mariachi band, and that’s all on top of her beginning, intermediate and advanced band, orchestra and choir that she does.”

When entering her classroom, students know what is expected of them. She maintains her classroom in a way that gives her students real-life experience in what a typical music rehearsal is like in high school, college and professionally. She sets a high bar and establishes clear goals for all students. She cares deeply for her students and wants them to love music as much as she does. She believes it is the duty of educators to inspire young people to be thinkers and problem-solvers who will make positive contributions to their community.

“Mrs. Richardson continually demonstrates creative and thoughtful ideas in her own planning and classroom,” Downey wrote in his letter of recommendation. “She masterfully integrates music history, music theory, and multiple performance venues. She has her students communicate and discuss content in forums and invites parents to participate in an annual day in the life of a music student.”

Paula attended San Diego State University. She received her Bachelor of Music in Applied Arts and Sciences, and her Californian Teacher Credential, Music K-12. She completed her California Administrative Credential and received her Master of Education in Educational Leadership.

Congratulations, Paula, on being selected the 2020 San Diego Unified Teacher of the Year at the Middle Level.

High School Teacher of the Year

Deirdre Fabian

Morse High School
Grade 9-12 Adapted Physical Education

Deirdre Fabian took the roundabout way to San Diego Unified. She began her teaching career in North Carolina before moving to California. But when she got to San Diego, she couldn’t find a full-time teaching job and started working part-time at local boxing gyms. After a few months, Fabian realized more than ever than the call of the classroom was beckoning, and eventually she got hired at San Diego Unified in 2003. For the past three years, Fabian has taught adapted PE at both Morse and Lincoln High Schools and says it’s exactly where she wants to be.

“I’ll brag and say I have the best job in special education being an adaptive PE teacher,” said Fabian. “I get to connect with so many kids and just have fun and see changes in them as they grow and show them new opportunities and ways to learn.”

Morse Principal Cynthia Larkin says Fabian is a champion of all students, not just the population she works with most. “We love her at Morse,” said Larkin. “I feel like she’s doing a phenomenal job, and we’re really blessed to have her on our site, and I wish every high school would have a Deirdre Fabian on their site.”

Putting students first has been Fabian’s personal teaching philosophy for 29 years. She believes education should revolve around the “whole” student.  She strives to create a teaching environment that allows all students to grow physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. All students are unique and deserve an education that inspires them to be the best they can be. She is an energetic, hands-on teacher who likes to make learning fun with her innovative “just do it” and ‘let’s try it” attitude.

She found another ‘love’ during her second-year teaching: Special Olympics. She was part of the Special Olympics program in North Carolina for nine years. Her association with this outstanding organization continues today. She currently serves as the Special Olympics liaison for San Diego Unified.

Deidre’s love of teaching physical education transformed into a love of teaching physical education to students with disabilities. Here she found her real passion. She received her Adaptive Physical Education (APE) authorization in 2017 and secured a position at Morse High School. She has been instrumental in establishing the district’s first Unified Physical Education at Morse High School. Unified PE is a class with 50% students with disabilities and 50% general education students. The students pair up, learn and inspire one another. They learn that everyone is different and everyone is equal. Due to its success, Unified PE is slated to expand across the district.

“Since Ms. Fabian has been at Morse High School, she has been instrumental in helping Morse become a more inclusive campus,” Larkin wrote in her letter of recommendation. “She brought Unified PE to Morse. What is special and unique about this course is that Morse’s general education students choose to be in this course to support our students with moderate to severe disabilities. The class has created a greater sense of awareness, tolerance and inclusivity.”

Deirdre received her B.A. in Physical Education from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and a California Single Subject Teaching Credential. She earned her MS in the Art of Teaching from National University. 

Congratulations, Deirdre Fabian, on being selected the 2020 San Diego Unified Teacher of the Year at the High School Level.

District Teacher of the Year nominees are first selected by their school sites. These individuals then have the option to apply for District Teacher of the Year, a process that includes written essays, interviews, and classroom observations. The Teacher of the Year winners and runners-up are selected by a six-member committee made up of previous District Teachers of the Year and runners-up. Each of the honorees may go on to the countywide competition along with the three runners-up for the district’s Teacher of the Year.

Meet San Diego Unified School District’s 2020 Teacher of the Year Runners-Up

2020 District Teacher of the Year Runner-up at the Elementary School Level

Melissa Taleb

Language Academy
Grades 4 and 5: Writing, social studies, French

“If I decide to become a teacher one day, I want to be just like Mme. Taleb. She’s fair, respectful, kind and always finds a way to make learning fun. She doesn’t let anyone fail. She makes you feel like its okay to make mistakes because you can learn from them. She makes us feel safe and doesn’t embarrass anyone.”  -- Student

Melissa Taleb, known as Madame (Mme) Taleb to her French Immersion students, has been teaching at the Language Academy for nine years. During her tenure, she has established herself as an inspiring educator. She creates a classroom environment that supports teaching and learning. She teaches all day, every day in a second language, using materials she has translated or created, to children from every geographic area of the district. Her high expectations for all students result in their academic achievement. She brings the school community together by partnering with other teachers to provide instructions to shared students and keeping parents informed. She is innovative, creative, resourceful and very dedicated to the field of education.

2020 District Teacher of the Year Runner-up at the Middle School Level

Erica Soto-Nauta

DePortola Middle Schools
Grade 6, 7, 8 English and ALD

“When one walks into Ms. Soto-Nauta’s classroom, the environment grabs you immediately. Students are seated in collaborative groups, the room is alive with student work samples and when you look at the learning targets in her room, there is always a social-emotional goal that are working towards. She provides a warm, nurturing environment for all her students, including English Learners and students with disabilities.” – Juliana Liebke, DePortola Vice Principal

Erica Soto-Nauta has been teaching at DePortola Middle School for six years. Her teaching philosophy consists of three major pillars:  making learning fun, creating student agency and having a growth mindset. She builds strong relationships with her students while simultaneously commanding their best effort, not always an easy task with middle schoolers. Instruction is not the only way she brings positive energy to her campus. She takes the lead in two clubs, Writer’s Corner and Art, and coordinates a site-based workout club that creates a positive outlet for staff. She is a true role model for excellence in teaching.

2020 District Teacher of the Year Runner-up at the High School Level

Jill Schenk

San Diego High SciTech
Grades 9-12 Physical Education

“I knew instantly that I would get along with Jill as her joyful personality commanded the room. I was mesmerized by her passion for teaching, her commitment to students and her ability to connect with everyone she encountered. Over the school year I watched students thrive in her PE courses. Students found a 90-minute block period to be fun, empowering, purposeful and enjoyable. Jill had a wait-list of students begging to enroll in her classes.” – Andreanna Murphy, Head Counselor, Office of College, Career & Technical Education

Jill Schenk’s teaching career has spanned more than 33 years, the past 9 years teaching physical education at San Diego High SciTech. She works tirelessly to come up with innovative ways to combine physical fitness with fun and wellness. She helped design a healthy lunchtime program and supports the high school’s Moderate/Severe program as lead teacher ensuring all students have access to general education curriculum. Her dedication to creating a positive school culture is exemplified in her redesigning the entire girls locker room with positive affirmations and getting new lockers after identifying a Title IX issue. She is committed to teaching her students the power of positive thinking and saying positive things.  “Can’t” is a four-letter word in her classes. During her long career, she has received numerous accolades, overcome obstacles, earned the respect of colleagues and accomplished many goals. According to Jill, her greatest contribution is making her students feel like they matter.

San Diego Unified’s Teacher of the Year Celebration would not be possible without the generous support of our sponsors:

California Coast Credit Union, California Schools VEBA, Mission Federal Credit Union, North Island Credit Union, San Diego Education Association, San Diego Education Fund


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