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Music teacher John Zirkle receives national award

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By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Big Sky School District music teacher John Zirkle was selected as the May honoree of the national nonprofit Honored, an organization that recognizes and rewards exceptional k-12 teachers. Honorees receive a $5,000 cash award and are the subject of a feature-length story by a writer of note, in Zirkle’s case, esteemed San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic, Joshua Kosman.

Zirkle received the award for his impact on Lone Peak High School junior Anna Alvin.

The 17-year-old, who plays the alto saxophone in the instrumental ensemble, sings in the chorus and studies music theory, has worked with Zirkle since the fifth grade, but said she probably wouldn’t have pursued music to such an extent without his support and encouragement.

“His classes are some of the most interesting and challenging classes I take,” Alvin said. “And they make me approach music and life and ask questions in ways that I wouldn’t have before.”

Ultimately, the goal of Honored is to identify teachers through online nominations by students, but only in its first year, the board is currently seeking out and selecting a diverse array of Honorees on their own.

“I was hoping to find an exceptional teacher in the Big Sky area to honor,” said Honored co-founder Karen Sonneborn. Sonneborn’s husband is from Miles City, Montana, and they spend as much time as possible in Big Sky when in the region.

“Over the years, we had heard wonderful things about John,” Sonneborn wrote in an email to EBS. “And when I asked a member of the school board to help identify an outstanding teacher in the district, she consulted with other district leaders and came back with John!”  

Zirkle said that while he feels a little too young and unqualified to be honored as a teacher in the “wise old sage” sense of the word, he is passionate about a more balanced, peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher style of educating, where the idea is to draw the student out, rather than inculcate them.

“How can we enable the people in the room to feel engaged with and connected to their instrument to create something in a meaningful way? What’s the next project and how can we make it good? How can we make it interesting?” Zirkle said, describing his approach. “As a teacher it’s cool to be honored for this idea of playing.”

For Zirkle, who also serves as artistic director of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, the cash award is a welcomed aspect of the recognition.

“That type of investment in saying ‘thanks to educators’ is a significant financial gift that really makes a difference in our lives—I mean [my wife] Ewa and I are going to be able to put that toward a down payment on a house. That’s a dream for all of us—to be able to afford a house here.”

Read Kosman’s full story about Zirkle and his impact on student Anna Alvin at



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