Earlier this year, Ben Case, a music instructor at Northwood High School, was recognized as High School Teacher of the Year within the Irvine Unified School District. Shortly thereafter, he received the same honor for the whole of Orange County.

And just last month, Mr. Case became one of five educators in the state to be chosen as a California Teacher of the Year.

“I was able to apply for the County Teacher of The Year, which I was one of six finalists for,” Case explained. “And being a finalist for that I was able to apply for the state.”

Speaking to Irvine Weekly by phone, Mr. Case shared his reaction to his first Teacher of the Year honors and explained the impact the professional acknowledgement comes with.

For Case, being recognized at the district level was a huge accomplishment, but he added that being acknowledged by the State Superintendent as Teacher of the Year still feels surreal. Most importantly, Case says that regardless of any award, he remains extremely passionate for music education which he hopes will ignite a spark in all of his students.

“It still hasn’t set in,” Case said of becoming California Teacher of The Year. “I know it sounds so cliché, but I feel so humbled to be part of the conversation. I’ve always just been so incredibly inspired by my colleagues at Northwood and throughout the district.”

Sonia Kearney, President of the Irvine Teachers Association, said she was thrilled when she learned about Case receiving the award. However, Kearney was not surprised.

“My son and daughter had Ben all four years of their high school careers,” Kearney wrote in an email to Irvine Weekly. “I am so excited that he has won this award. He truly made such a positive impact on both of them, that I will be eternally grateful to him and the program he has built.”

Case, a 17-year teaching veteran at Northwood, co-manages Northwood’s instrumental music program which caters to more than 800 students. From music theory classes to multiple different styles of instrumental ensembles, Case has developed a fine-tuned reputation among his colleagues and students.

“I teach instrumental music, which includes four bands, four orchestras, four jazz bands, a marching band of over 200 kids,” he said, “Then we got guitar class and music theory — so it’s a really extensive and comprehensive music program.”

Photo/Jayden Xie

The music started at a young age for the Irvine educator, who explained that his mother and grandfather were both musicians which helped reinforce an abundance of “positive memories.”

“It’s always been a huge part of my life. My mom was in a folk rock band in the 60s. She was the choir director at her church. My grandfather was a jazz drum set player back in World War II, so music has always been around,” he said. “I remember when I first got my saxophone when I was in fifth grade and my grandfather happened to be in town. My mother was on piano and my grandfather was playing on pots and pans — I was just kind of jamming along with.”

Case has been jamming along ever since.

From his perspective, music education is symbolic of society as it ultimately teaches the members of the band the value of working in groups and collaborating. Lately however, Case admits the music department has been challenged by the modifications needed for pandemic safety.

“It ultimately forced our hand into rethinking what our experiences were about,” he said. “The really special thing about making music is that instantaneous collaboration — kind of a microcosm of society, you can’t just show up and say, ‘I’m not going to play with the trumpets today’ — everybody has to play with everybody and we all work to the benefit of the group.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic uprooted many of those core philosophies of the curriculum. The inability to play wind instruments on campus, for example, led Case and his colleagues within IUSD to find alternatives in their teaching methods.

“When we were thrown that curveball, all of my music colleagues across the district spent a lot of time trying to rethink what we could do to provide as experiences. It’s still a work in progress. I suspect it’s going to be like this for a few years now. We all did everything we could,” he said. “My colleague and I — and I know a lot of others — were buying Home Depot buckets and drumsticks, and we taught the entire band how to drum because that was something you could do without putting out aerosol.”

While students in the music department are closer to a sense of normalcy than they were prior to the pandemic, Case said there’s still more work to be done.

“I think if you were to come into a rehearsal today it would look similar to what we were doing before the pandemic. But just like everything, I think we’re dealing with a certain level of learning loss. But I think the persistence, resilience and that passion to come back — you really are seeing it.”

As Case embarks on a path toward inclusive normalcy in Northwood’s music department, he says he will do so without thinking of the Teacher of the Year recognitions, but rather the passion for music, education and aspects of collaboration.

“The reason why I signed up for this was never to get the pats on the back or the accolades. The reason why I teach, the reason why I go back day after day — it’s the students,” he said. “Being able to forge connections with students, to be able to show them things they haven’t experienced before through music and understand something deeper about themselves.”

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