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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Alumna Music Educator Named San Diego County Teacher of the Year

Paula Richardson

Almost every year, Paula Richardson (’06, ’19) says she experiences “one of those moments.” Often, they will occur before a concert, as her assembled middle schoolers nervously rehearse. Invariably, Richardson will need to intervene and offer her students encouragement and guidance on how to play better. 

And then? 

“And then they do it, and they hear it, and they feel it,” said Richardson, a music teacher at Wilson Middle School in San Diego’s Normal Heights neighborhood. “You can see their faces change and their demeanors change. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it. That is what I live for.”

Fueled by those little breakthroughs, the San Diego State University and Marching Aztecs alumna was one of five local educators named a 2020-21 San Diego County Teacher of the Year by the San Diego County Office of Education. She will be honored as part of “A Salute to Teachers,” which will air on Nov. 21, and she is now in the running for the California Teacher of the Year award. 

“Something that's true about educators — the good ones — is that they love what they're teaching,” Richardson said. “Music is what I love. I'm so passionate about getting to teach these kids about something that I love.” 

From Drumline to the Classroom 

Music is what drew Richardson to SDSU in the first place. A drummer by training, she transferred to SDSU from Saddleback College in 2001 to join the Marching Aztecs. While laying down beats at Qualcomm Stadium halftimes and earning her bachelor’s degree in music education, she also coached drumline at multiple local schools. By the time she entered SDSU’s credential program in 2006, she said she already felt a step ahead. 

“As a music education major, I got to have experiences in front of students before I even graduated,” said Richardson, who also met her future husband, Tyler Richardson — a member of the Wind Symphony — as an undergrad. “Many other majors do not get those kinds of opportunities until the credential program. Being a student in the SDSU music education program provided me with opportunities to be in the classroom, which made me feel prepared to teach right away.” 

Since joining the teaching profession, she has maintained strong SDSU ties. Richardson has served as a guide teacher for School of Teacher Education credential candidates for more than 10 years. Amid the pandemic, her virtual music appreciation instruction is currently augmented by one SDSU credential candidate and one undergraduate fellow from the School of Music and Dance. 

Richardson returned to campus to earn her master’s degree in educational leadership with a concentration in PreK-12 in 2019, an experience she said changed her as an educator. 

“I am such a different person now than I was before,” she said. “Part of it was my own experience in teaching, but the other part is the variety of experiences you get in the master’s program. The professors were just fantastic. We're talking about top administrators in San Diego teaching my courses. It was very valuable.” 

Music Education Advocacy 

At Wilson — an urban school where nearly all of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch — Richardson relishes the chance to share her passion with children of all backgrounds. Her classes engage students with special needs, English language learners and students who otherwise aren’t performing academically. Music, she said, serves as an important outlet to help young people become engaged at school and build confidence and self esteem. 

“It teaches them that when they put in this hard work, there's an outcome, and it changes them,” she said. 

Now, with the honor as one of San Diego County’s top teachers in hand, she’s ready to bang the drum for music education as loud as she can. 

“We've been fighting for the arts since the beginning of time, especially in education,” Richardson said. “I'm now in a position where people are asking me questions and I can say, 'Yeah, let's talk about what a difference the arts make. Let's talk about how arts are for everyone.' 

“I feel honored to now be in a position where I can say it and people are going to listen.”