Music is her mode
When Jodi Neilson is conducting the Ocean Air School sixth-grade band, she is a commanding, precise director. But she is fun and excitable, too, playfully interacting with her students.
"She is effervescent with kids," Principal Gary Wilson said.
It's that effervescence that makes Neilson this year's California Music Educator Association Music Teacher of the Year.
"She is the absolute best of the best," said Wilson, who nominated her for the honor.
Sixth-grader Erica Byrne agrees. "She's always optimistic," Byrne said. "She really encourages us."
Neilson said she feels very lucky to have a professional musician as a principal--Wilson will sing the national anthem at the June 6 San Diego Padres game, his 18th time doing so.
"He is the greatest supporter of music education in this district," Neilson said. "He thinks this is the model of what all elementary students should be receiving." Neilson also believes there are more boys in the choir at Ocean Air because of Wilson's example.
Kindergartners through sixth grader students come to Neilson's class to sing, play instruments, dance and play games. She directs two school bands, the chorus and a string ensemble.
"I'd be surprised if she even has time to sit down and relax," said sixth grader Keshau Tadimeti, who plays in both bands and sings in the chorus.
Every student in first through sixth grade also performs in a musical theater production that is tied in with something they are learning in the classroom.
From age 5, Neilson's had a passion for music. She was first inspired by her older brother's piano lessons. She lobbied the piano teacher and convinces him to take on a 5-year-old pupil.
From piano she went to keyboards and percussion in her elementary school band. She was the drum major in her high school marching band. She went on to get her degree in music education at San Diego State University and her masters at Point Loma Nazarene.
Her first teaching gig came in 1990 in Escondido where she taught band at 10 schools.
"What a first job," she said with a laugh.
While it was a challenge, she found that music was "an easy sell" to the children; they all were happy and excited to be in band.
Neilson went on to teach music and band at Kakuku High School in Hawaii and then spent three years in New Zealand teaching fifth and sixth grade.
There, Neilson had to integrate music into the curriculum. She said she loved seeing how music could be a motivator, how a student might struggle in math but excel in music and that success would trickle to other subjects.
The integration was good practice for Del Mar Hills Academy, where she taught for eight years before Ocean Air opened in 2007.
Neilson said it almost isn't fair how good she has it at Ocean Air with the great facilities, the support of staff and parents and the motivated students.
"I've got it made," Neilson said. "This is a place I will stay until I retire because it doesn't get any better than this."