Meet Cristian Gallardo: Dallas ISD’s 2024 Teacher of the Year

Interview, photos, and video by Jennie Trejo. Photos also provided by Dallas ISD.

For 18 years, Cristian Gallardo has been an integral part of the Sam Tasby Middle School community. His journey as an educator began as a teacher’s aide (TA), where he dedicated himself to various tasks, from lunch duty to textbook organization. In 2012, he seized the opportunity to further his career by enrolling in Dallas ISD’s Alternative Certification program, ultimately securing a position as an eighth-grade science instructor. For five years, he captivated students with imaginative science lessons before following his true passion for teaching art in 2016.

In addition to his teaching roles, Mr. Gallardo has made significant contributions to the school as a member of the campus leadership team, Language Proficiency Assessment Committee member, testing coordinator, translator, mentor to new teachers, and more. We sat down with Mr. Gallardo to discuss his journey, his love for art and community, and how it feels to be DISD’s Teacher of the Year 2023-2024.

Tell me about yourself. Are you from Dallas?

Mr. Gallardo outside of Sam Tasby Middle School, where he has worked in various teaching roles for 18 years.
I was born in Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, and moved to the US in 1991. We lived in Chicago for a year, and then we were on our way back to Mexico. My parents stopped in Dallas to visit some friends, and we ended up staying here. I started school in Dallas ISD at Tom W. Field Elementary School on Royal Lane in 1992. I eventually graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and earned my Bachelor of Art in Art and Performance from the University of Texas at Dallas.

How did your journey into the field of education go? Were you always interested in becoming a teacher?

The wall in Mr. Gallardo's office. He drew this mural with pencils and Sharpie markers.

No, it was never on my radar. I wanted to be an illustrator/comic book artist. When I started college, I studied graphic design and advertising. So, it was always in the art field, but I never imagined that I was going to be in the classroom. The summer that Tasby Middle School opened, I had a friend who worked here and asked me to come work with them. I was unsure; I was working at a bank at the time, and I liked it enough. But she told me to think about it. Eventually, I called her back and asked what I was going to be doing. She explained that I would be a TA and help out the teachers. So that’s how my journey started here – when the school opened, I started as a TA. And I would say within that first week, I thought, “I think this is what I want to do.” I enjoyed it more than I thought I would!

How did becoming a TA shape your approach to education?

I was a general TA, so I would go wherever needed. I said yes to everything. I’m fortunate because I got to work in multiple areas of the school– I helped translate for ARDS and parent-teacher conferences, lunch duty, and after-school programs. It helped me when I became a certified teacher, just because I was aware of more of the things that were going on around the building.

Eventually, I started looking into the Dallas ISD Alternative Certification program. I told the principal at the time that I wanted to start a teaching career here at Tasby. The only positions at the time were 7th-grade ELA or 8th-grade science. I have always liked science; it was my favorite subject in school. He was hesitant to give me the position because it was a STAAR-tested grade and I was a new teacher, but I knew I would have a great support system from the other teachers on the 8th-grade team. Looking back, it was an exciting start. When you have people cheering you on, it makes a difference. So, I never second-guessed myself. I was an 8th-grade science teacher for five years.

What was your innovative approach to science lessons?

Example of a comic book Mr. Gallardo created for science class.

One of my favorite lessons to teach was Newton’s Laws of Motion. I brought in a pair of rollerblades, and I had kids push me in my rollerblades up and down the hallway to see when friction would stop me. The second one that I did was the structure of the atom— I would put tables together and make paper cutouts for the kids to represent either the electrons, protons, or neutrons. They would stand on the table as kids went around pretending to be sub-atomic particles to give them that hands-on experience.

It helped that I have an artistic background. It naturally became science slash art class at the same time. For review, I created little comic book pamphlets. Each one had a different cover that was hand drawn by me, depending on what the content was. Even years later, I had one of my old students come back and tell me that she still had them. I just tried to make learning as fun and entertaining as I could.

So, when did you decide to become the art teacher?

Mr. Gallardo’s classroom is covered with art created by middle school students.

In 2016, my principal said that we were going to hire a new art teacher at Tasby. I told her, “I’m right here!” She thought I was joking, because she didn’t know that my background was in art. She didn’t want to let me go from science, but I told her art my passion, and “if I don’t do it here, I’m going to do it somewhere else, but I’d really rather do it here.” She finally said, “Okay, the position is yours.” In the following year, I made the transition into this classroom.

I enjoy teaching art to middle schoolers because they remind me of when I was a kid. When I was growing up, anime was not as big as it is now, but I still had comic books and you know, cartoons like X-Men. So that’s why if you look in my classroom, you see a lot of superheroes. I try to find what they’re interested in. The only thing I find a little bit more difficult now is as I get older, I watch less TV. Sometimes I have to look up their favorite characters now. I also try to expose kids to different kinds of art styles that are out there. It’ss just kind of opening the door for them to experience a little bit more than what they’re used to or what they think they’ll like.

Tasby, where you have spent your career, is in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood. There’s a large immigrant population here. Can you talk about the demographics of the community and how you connect with a diverse group of students?

Mr. Gallardo plans culturally relevant lessons, including Día de los Muertos, which is widely observed in Mexico.

It’s going to sound very cliche, but since I’ve been here so long, I just see them as kids. At the beginning, it was a bit of a cultural shock for me, just seeing so many cultures and religions come into one place. Over the years, it’s become normal for me. I love having conversations with students where they tell me about their culture or bring a food for me to try. I also feel like it makes me a better person, more empathetic towards everybody else. It also gives me an insight into how life is for students from different backgrounds. I do have teacher friends like that work in Arlington, or Mansfield, and I when I share my stories, they’re like, “Oh, that is so different from what we have.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but this is what makes it even better for me.”

What is your advice for new teachers?

When I mentor my teachers, I tell them to be okay with making mistakes, especially if it’s your first year. It’s not going to be perfect. This process is going to make you into a better teacher. I had to learn that lesson, because I’m kind of like a perfectionist. My year one was more me just allowing myself to make mistakes and experimenting. I also tell them to just seek out assistance. Don’t be intimidated or afraid to ask for help. Sometimes people are worried it might make you seem like you’re not a good teacher. At the end of the day, it’s just good for the teacher and the students because you’re going to be performing even at a higher level.

What has kept you coming back each year?

Mr. Gallardo also participates in helping with cultural events at the school. These dresses were for the Cinco de Mayo concert.
Well, definitely the students. Because like I said, I enjoy the diversity that we have. And even though it’s my job, I don’t wake up not feeling like, “Oh, I gotta go to work.” I get up and I’m ready to go. And it definitely is work– I tend to put a little bit too much on my plate at times. But ultimately, I enjoy it, and it’s not a bad place to be in. I want to continue being here.

How does it feel to win Teacher of the Year?

Mr. Gallardo’s official Teacher of the Year headshot. Photo credit to Dallas ISD.

It was a wonderful surprise! I went through the process thinking, “Oh, let me see what happens.” Once I was nominated as a finalist, I had to do a video interview. It was a little intimidating. I didn’t know what they were going to ask. At the moment, I decided to just be the person I am in my classroom and with my colleagues. When the moment came of being named Teacher of the Year, I was in shock. It wasn’t until I went to bed– that’s when it hit me!

It’s been such an amazing process. I’ve told all my friends I could not have done it without them. I do my part, but I’ve taken pieces from different teachers and friends in the education field, and I implemented those to make them work for me.