When Paula Stenberg began teaching at St. Mary's in 2003, she was simply grateful to be teaching at her daughters' alma mater.

When Paula Stenberg began teaching at St. Mary's in 2003, she was simply grateful to be teaching at her daughters' alma mater.

While the Medford resident might have felt lucky to get the job, co-workers, parents and students marvel at the fact Stenberg, a Ph.D. who once taught graduate medical students, would delve into the trenches of high school biology and Shakespeare with the same enthusiasm she likely taught future physicians.

Named to USA Today's annual All-Star Teacher Team, Stenberg garnered an honorable mention Oct. 18 in the paper's 10th annual recognition of the nation's top teachers.

Nominated by co-workers, students or parents, then asked to write an essay about their teaching approach, winning teachers were selected from all grade levels, subjects and student populations from inner-city high schools to military-base kindergarten classrooms.

Stenberg, those who know her said, stood out for being one of few teachers named from a private school and for her unusual combined focus on science and the arts.

A Ph.D. who taught medical students at Portland's Oregon Health and Science University before coming to the Rogue Valley in 1998, Stenberg teaches anatomy, physiology and biology at St. Mary's in addition to a special Shakespeare class.

While she'd describe Stenberg as soft-spoken, Medford resident Cameron Candless, who wrote a letter in support of Stenberg's nomination, said Stenberg's passion for teaching and her hands-on approach connect with students on a level that makes any subject matter make sense.

"She's one of these remarkable ideal teachers who, unlike any other teacher I've ever heard of, can span both the sciences and literature," Candless said. "She has a way of communicating to students in a pretty graceful and gracious manner. Through that, I think she raises the standards in a way that really makes the students feel good about what they do for her."

When Stenberg's recognition was announced during a student assembly recently, Candless recalled "there was a long and spontaneous standing ovation initiated by the students."

Candless' daughter, 17-year-old Cailey, said her teacher was most deserving of the national recognition.

"I think she couldn't be more qualified for that award," said the teen. "She is so earnest and compassionate and she brings a really sweet energy to everything she does. She so desperately wants every single student to work to their potential, which makes the students want to work to their potential because she's so invested in how they respond to her."

While Stenberg insists she's just doing her job, she was humbled by the recognition.

"Goodness, if you read some of the things these people are doing! It's one thing to be working in wonderful St. Mary's in beautiful Southern Oregon," said the 54-year-old. "But to read some of the things these other people are doing. I'm honored to be recognized, but I think all teachers deserve recognition for the job they do."

Frank Phillips, head of St. Mary's school, said students are lucky to have access to a teacher with credentials like Stenberg's.

Phillips marvels at Stenberg's passion for teaching high schoolers.

"When she got her teaching certificate, she said she'd be happy to teach for us if an opportunity came up," he recalled. "Of course we were thrilled to have her. We ended up with this Ph.D. former medical teacher — and there's no ego about the whole thing. She's just a great teacher and a great role model for the kids.

"Paula's really soft-spoken when you talk to her, but she brings a lot of energy to the classroom. It's amazing to think we've got 15-year-olds taking biology form this woman who was training physicians just a few years ago."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.