Cherryview Elementary music teacher focuses on inclusion

District 194 teacher Mary Zilge is a semifinalist for 2016 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Mary Zilge
Mary Zilge

The Cherryview Elementary music teacher, nominated for the honor by colleagues fourth-grade teacher Carrie Popp and fifth-grade teacher Scott Breberg, was one of 37 teachers to advance from a pool of 132 candidates nominated statewide for the prestigious title.

Popp said Zilge stands out for how she makes sure every student has a place and is included, particularly those who may struggle academically.

“We have the highest population of special ed students in the district in our building,” Pop said. “And she makes sure every one of those children has parts in all her performances.”

Students may sing a solo, play an instrument, recite some lines or participate in a dance.

“Every child loves to come to music because of her,” Popp said. “She is the reason, she’s the inspiration, she’s the glue to everything.”

Zilge, 48, said she selects the music for students based on the cultural backgrounds of the K-5 students in her class.

“I try to pick music that connects with my students and some of their home traditions,” Zilge said. “We still are a mostly white school, but I think it’s really important for us to make sure that our marginalized populations of students get to see themselves here, otherwise everything just sort of gets glossed over.”

Students in her class learn to play the ukulele as well as West African drumming, Japanese Taiko drumming, Indonesian hand dancing and Indian Bhangra dancing.

“I’ll go out and do research or I’ll invite somebody from the community in who can teach us more about it if I don’t know,” Zilge said. “Then, off we go.”

Popp said Zilge’s approach brings more than an education to the children.

“Beyond music, they learn cultural acceptance and they learn so much value to appreciating other people,” Popp said.

Zilge, who has spent the bulk of her 26-year teaching career at Cherryview, called being nominated “very exciting”
“I didn’t in a million years think that this would happen,” Zilge said. “So it’s very exciting, especially being a teacher of the arts, to be in this situation and to have a voice. Sometimes it’s a part of school that gets looked at as kind of a side project instead of something that actually enhances our kids’ lives.”

A selection committee representing Minnesota leaders in education, business and government will narrow the pool to 10 finalists in late March and the current Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Abdul Wright, will announce his successor at a May 7 banquet at Radisson Blu Mall of America in Bloomington.

The person selected for the title will spend the year representing advocating for education and acting as a spokesperson for teachers by making presentations, meeting with policymakers and attending meetings.