When Northwood High School teacher Ben Case saw a Sacramento phone number pop up on his cellphone late one recent night, he had an inkling of who might be calling.
The former California Teachers of the Year he’d spoken to said it might go like this.
But still, when he picked up to receive the news from state Superintendent Tony Thurmond that he was one of five California teachers being recognized for this year’s top honor, “my wife and I both just kind of had to sit down.”
“I mean, it stopped us in our tracks,” he said.
The educators, selected out of a pool nominated from each county, are meant to be “ambassadors for the profession,” who share their techniques and knowledge with others and represent education in California. That Case is one of the five selected still “hasn’t sunk in,” he said.
“I absolutely love what I do,” said Case, an instrumental and music theory teacher at Northwood High. “I’ve worked really hard, but that’s because I see so much reward that comes out of it. And I just want to be the teacher that I would want to have if I were the student.”
Orange County was also represented among nine finalists for the annual recognition with Jamie Morgan, a first grade teacher at Cerritos Elementary School.
Case, who has worked at Northwood High School for 16 years, directs the instrumental music program on campus, overseeing more-than 500 students across four orchestras, four jazz bands, four concert bands, a marching band and guitar and music theory classes.
During the pandemic, he also helped create the curriculum for taking music classes online.
A Cal State Fullerton alum, Case said his teaching style is an amalgamation of mentors and “inspirational colleagues” he’s worked with over the years. In his application for the county Teacher of the Year award, he stressed that in his role, “I do not teach MUSIC. I teach STUDENTS.”
“For years, this has been the foundation of my educational philosophy,” he said, “and since the pandemic began, it has become my daily mantra.”
One of his proudest moments professionally was organizing a summer concert in June for all of the Northwood alums who didn’t get to participate in spring and end-of-the-year performances in 2020 because of the pandemic’s onset. About 60 former orchestra and band students came back to rehearse and play before a live audience.
A highlight was “being able to connect with them and seeing kind of where they were all at and what they’ve done,” he said.
“Some of them went on and continued playing college, some of them hadn’t touched their instrument since the school shut down,” he said. “But we were able to have that opportunity again. It was really exciting.”
Irvine Unified School District Superintendent Terry Walker regards Case as the kind of teacher who is “just willing to do whatever it takes to support their kids, and to apply his talents and his passion for music to inspire other kids,” Walker said.
One memory of Case that has stuck with Walker is from a school day in early 2021, when Walker was visiting Northwood’s campus. It was cold and windy outside, but he said Case was there in the school parking lot under the solar panels, guiding students playing their instruments as music stands blew over and the chill picked up.
It was the first day students were allowed to start using their wind instruments again because of coronavirus precautions, Case said, and while some restrictions were still in place, he was determined to get students back to playing – at least a couple of scales.
“He’s somebody who deserves this kind of recognition,” Walker said. “He embodies all the things that we look for in teachers, kind of this selfless commitment to their students and deep appreciation and value for their their talents, and building them and coaching them along and helping them to achieve their highest potential.
“And he just does it with an incredible attitude,” Walker added.
With his new platform as a Teacher of the Year, Case said he wants to be a champion for increased access to arts education, an area he sees as serving “as a lever for equity.”
“Everybody’s equal, everybody’s voice and experiences are valued in the ensemble,” he said, “and I think the arts can really kind of lead the charge to allow students to heal, allow students to connect with the material, with each other, with the world around them.”
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