Fourteen years ago Mitch Bahr (’96) stepped up to the podium to become music director at a rural Northern California high school and brought harmony to what was deemed by school officials as a program in “complete disarray.”

Now, after building a widely respected and successful program at the school, the state of California is singing his praises: Bahr was recently named a 2016 California Teacher of the Year — an honor given by the California Department of Education to just five teachers in the entire state.

“I obviously feel a great sense of gratitude,” said Bahr, who has been a music teacher for 19 years, 14 of which have been at Foothill High School in Palo Cedro, Calif. “It’s nice to be acknowledged but it’s overwhelming because there are a lot of great teachers in California that have my job.”

The music education program at Biola’s Conservatory of Music helped strengthen Bahr’s passion for teaching and music, he said, giving him the tools necessary to teach in a classroom when he finished his degree. One of Bahr’s professors, Robert Feller, had a great influence on him and the way that he approached music and teaching, he said.

“He had a great way to get the most out of us. He was firm when he needed to be and gave grace when we needed it,” Bahr said. “It’s what I try to do with most of my kids now. I think it was tough to understand initially because I was wide eyed and didn’t understand why he was so hard at first, but now I really appreciate it.”

Bahr works to facilitate an atmosphere where everyone feels like they are a part of a team because it emphasizes that playing music is something bigger than themselves.

“I tell my kids, if you’re thinking ‘I’m nervous’ then you can guarantee that you’re thinking about the wrong pronoun, even if it’s before a solo,” Bahr said. “Music is an extremely selfless ordeal. It’s not about yourself. You’re thinking about the band director, the audience, and the other band members.”

One of the things that Bahr focuses on is making sure that students learn things that they can take out of the classroom as well. He works hard to maintain a healthy and honest environment for the kids.

“I try to capture moments when the kids are real and they know how to deal with the things that come their way in life,” he said.