Music Alumnus Hits High Note for California Teacher of the Year

High school music teacher Ben Case entered the ranks of the teaching profession 17 years ago not to teach music, but to teach students.

“I approach every aspect of my teaching with that philosophy,” said Case, a graduate student at Cal State Fullerton.

Case was named California Teacher of the Year in 2023 for his impact on students and for doing what he could during a challenging time in education. He is one of five educators to receive national awards for outstanding teaching.

“I’m really honored,” Case said. “I value my colleagues very much and I am inspired by them every day. The relationships I have formed with my students and colleagues are by far the greatest rewards.”

Teacher of the Year Ben Case accepts the award
California Teacher of the Year Ben Case with his children Elliott (7) and Addie (13).

Case ’05, ’10 (BM instrumental-music performance, MM music-performance) is an instrumental music and music theory teacher at Northwood High School in the Irvine Unified School District. He is the instrumental music director for Northwood’s music program, which has received seven Grammy Signature School Awards and serves 500 students.

He directs the wind band, philharmonic orchestra, symphony orchestra and one of the school’s four jazz ensembles, and is co-leader of the marching band and color guard of 220 students. Case also teaches the Advanced Placement Music Theory class and has been Chair of the Arts Department for the past 13 years.

Case, who studied music education and graduated from CSUF’s single-subject music credential program in 2007, is also a practicing musician. He mainly plays the saxophone, but also plays the euphonium, tuba, clarinet, trumpet and drums. On his 40th birthday he learned to play the bagpipes so that he could perform at a concert with his students.

“Throughout my experience, I work with incredibly talented students and colleagues in an atmosphere that continually redefines the bar of what is possible,” said Case.

Why did you enter the teaching profession?

I grew up surrounded by strong educators. Before retiring in 2016, my father, Jim Case, was the director of CSUF’s Career Center, helping students find their way after graduation. My mother was a children’s librarian who helped children with learning disabilities. My brother works for the Vermont State Department of Education and previously worked for the National Department of Education and as a fine arts classroom teacher. I’ve seen firsthand the difference a teacher can make – and I want to make that difference for someone else.

What are the challenges and rewards of teaching?

With the ever-changing guidance on COVID-19 precautions, teaching has been challenging on so many levels. We’ve had to show an incredible level of flexibility in our classes – from learning sound engineering software and teaching students to create virtual ensembles to buying buckets of Home Depot to teach everyone how to drums. But even with these daily challenges, it was hard not to be inspired by the resilience and perseverance of our students. Her compassion and willingness to reconsider her experiences was a constant reminder to me why I entered this profession.

What are some high notes as a music teacher?

I have conducted many concerts and events and there will always be certain pieces or performances that stand out. But what means the most to me are the people I’ve had the privilege of sharing these experiences with. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt, I dressed in full regalia and went door-to-door to my students’ homes, playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on my saxophone. I will always remember the expressions on my students’ faces when their neighbors came outside to see what was going on. Last summer I gave an alumni concert for my students who missed performing on our stage due to the pandemic. Around 60 band and orchestra students, some of whom hadn’t touched their instruments since graduating, came for a weekend of making music and reconnecting. That made it clear why I teach.

What are some of your favorite CSUF memories?

There are so many I owe so much to, but my mentors Mitch Fennell (Music Professor Emeritus) and James Rotter (Music Professor Emeritus) have left a lasting impression on me as an educator, father and person. I remember performing at the Little Theater during college before the Meng Concert Hall was built, and then being a part of the first concert performed in Meng. I also really enjoy coming back and performing, whether it’s in the alumni band or guiding my own students to play in concerts together on the same stage.

How did your CSUF education prepare you for your teaching career?

I had an amazing experience at CSUF, both as an undergraduate and graduate student. From the incredible teachers and mentors to passionate fellow students, I’ve always felt supported and challenged to reach my own potential. As a graduate student, I remember feeling that my education was far less about figuring out the answer and more about learning to ask the right questions. It has become a lifelong desire to learn and grow.