Belgrade High School social studies teacher Jennifer Zirbel has been named the 2021 Montana History Teacher of the Year.
The award was announced July 13 by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
Zirbel, 39, has been a teacher for 10 years. She has taught at Belgrade High for six years and previously taught at Lone Pine High School in Big Sky.
At Lone Pine she taught grades 7-12.
Zirbel is a California native, raised in the Sacramento area, and a graduate of Sacramento State with a degree in history. She has lived in Montana since 2004, she said.
She has been teaching U.S. history and AP U.S. history, in addition to coaching the Academic Olympians. Next year, she said she is scheduled to teach AP U.S. history, AP U.S. government, and government classes.
Teaching U.S. history “is something interesting every year,” Zirbel told the Belgrade News, particularly in a year which COVID sometimes turned local education upside down.
“Yes, it was interesting this year for sure,” she said. Most of my teaching was in person the whole year and we proceeded as usual. The challenge for me was how can I translate ‘in person’ to ‘online?’ It was challenging to work on from home. I think it will make me more thoughtful and creative. Make me a better teacher in the future.”
In 2014, Zirbel was also selected as the Montana James Madison Foundation Fellow, which included four weeks at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and “historical sight-seeing.” The fellowship included a scholarship for graduate school. She chose the University of Illinois to pursue a master’s degree in political science.
This “Teacher of the Year” award is “a real pat on the back. It says ‘you’re being a good teacher,’ “ she added.
What sets her teaching apart from that of the rest of the educational herd?
“I’m pretty student-centered,” she answered. “Each class is tailored to each group every year. I’m always changing every year. My role as a teacher – it’s not my job to tell them what to think or feel.
“My role is to guide them. It’s a lot of front-loading, planning ahead of time, for them to experience it differently than the traditional style of teaching. That’s what’s kind of special (about my classes).”
What about the last presidential election? Was it covered in class?
“In our history class, not so much. Just a little to understand the electoral process.”
And the last history book she read?
“Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned,” by Kenneth Davis.
“It’s a book of the ‘stories behind the stories,’ tidbits of everyday soldiers and citizens. I can incorporate those tidbits into the classroom,” she said.
What are her favorite historical areas?
“The U.S. Supreme Court rulings and how they impact citizens; and more broadly, the Cold War Era of the ‘60s and ‘70s and this country’s push for social change,” Zirbel said.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute was founded in 1994 by two lifelong supporters of American History education. According to the Institute, it is the leading American nonprofit dedicated to K-12 history education.
The Institute has its own history archive, the Gilder Lehrman Collection of more than 70,000 documents and a network of historians to provide teachers, students and the public “direct access to unique primary source materials.”
This year, a record 8,510 teachers were nominated for state History Teacher of the Year awards, according to the Institute. This fall, a National History Teacher for 2021 will be selected from the pool of state winners.
Zirbel’s award came with a $1,000 honorarium “and a core archive of American history books and Institute educational materials.”
“I love this profession,” she concluded. “I could do it forever; I love to teach.”