Highlands choir teacher’s passion fueled by seeing his students shine
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley residents and the notable things they do.
Michael Zeiler kept his end-of-the-school-year tradition a secret for nearly a decade.
After his students had left, as Zeiler packed up his classroom for the summer, he’d take a seat in the Highlands High School choir room and watch something that reminded him not only of how much he loved teaching but also his own teenage years: the final episode of the 1990s sitcom “Boy Meets World.”
He’d sit alone and cry “happy tears” as TV characters Cory, Topanga, Shawn and Eric said goodbye to their longtime teacher and mentor, Mr. Feeny.
Three years ago, the Highlands choir director divulged his admittedly corny-yet-cathartic routine to a group of curious students.
“Well, why don’t you show that with us?” he recalls them asking.
And so began Zeiler’s annual tradition of playing for graduating seniors the final six minutes of a coming-of-age show that was a hit on ABC’s TGIF lineup before his students were born. The students from the classes of 2016 through 2019 loved it, like they did many of Mr. Z’s endearingly zany quirks and ideas, and now he isn’t the only one who tears up when the characters bid farewell to Mr. Feeny.
“It’s a big tear-jerker fest. We’re all like a sloppy mess,” Zeiler said with a chuckle. “Those last six minutes are so heartfelt because it’s about a teacher who has really stood the test of time with their students and never stopped believing in them.”
Zeiler’s favorite part of the segment is when Mr. Feeny offers up four concise pieces of advice: “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do Good.”
“This quote has become like an anthem within my teaching heart,” said Zeiler, who’s going into his 13th year as a music teacher — a role he relishes as his “dream job.”
Zeiler has the Mr. Feeny quote posted to a wall in his office adjacent to the main choir room, whose two-story-high walls are plastered with dozens of billboards, programs and photographs celebrating student performances and musical productions — from the 1980s jams and dancing in his high school directorial debut, “The Wedding Singer,” to last spring’s epic “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the set construction of which took more than six weeks and 800 2-by-4s.
“For me, as a teacher, as an educator,” said Zeiler, “to give a child a purpose and to make a child believe in himself, that’s the best thing you can ever do.”
Zeiler walked the halls of Highlands High as a student in the early 2000s.
Now 34 and in charge of several choir and musical programs at his alma mater, Zeiler stands out as a teacher with a powerful knack for inspiring passion, connecting with students and providing them meaningful opportunities to showcase their hard work, creativity and talent on campus as well as via community events across the Alle-Kiski Valley.
“He is a fireball,” said Justin Moser, 19, a former choir student of Zeiler’s who graduated from Highlands two years ago and now is studying political science at Penn State New Kensington. “He loves what he does; he literally dedicates every moment to doing good and trying to make sure people have fun and just understand how a good life can be.”
Highlands sophomore Mychael Richards, 15, of Tarentum said Zeiler “just makes you feel accepted.”
“He’s very creative and he lets you express yourself,” Richards said. “I just love him.”
Highlands counselor Marilyn Skwortz said Zeiler “has got to be one of the kindest and most compassionate teachers that I’ve worked with.”
“It’s amazing to watch students’ personalities come to life, and they all of a sudden have a lot more passion and confidence,” she said. “He brings that out in them.”
Being a part of Zeiler’s musical program “changed me as a person, to be honest,” said alumnus Domenik Hurley, 18, who plans to serve with the Air National Guard then go to college to study engineering.
“Since as long as I can remember, I was just, like, in my shell; I didn’t want to step outside my comfort zone,” Hurley said. “But a while after joining (the Highlands music program), I just grew out of it. I became myself.”
‘Have a magical day!’
Zeiler comes from a long line of Alle-Kiski Valley family members involved in real estate, and some in teaching, but he’s the only one of his parents’ three children who fell in love with music at an early age.
He traces a moment that shaped his life’s pursuits to an 11th-grade field trip. Zeiler recalled feeding off the energy of thousands of people at Disney World while performing as drum major of the Highlands marching band.
“Just the magic of the music, I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, but it has to involve music and it has to involve magic,’ ” Zeiler said. “And I accomplished both.”
The trip spurred Zeiler’s interest in applying for a job at Disney World.
After clearing an arduous audition process and being judged for his dancing, singing and appearance alongside some 300 people, Zeiler landed the role as a Disney cast member. He spent the next 11 summers and winter breaks working in Orlando — primarily as a bellhop at the Hollywood Hotel Tower of Terror.
He said he loves to incorporate what he’s learned from Disney into the classroom, from sharing old props and collectible pins to encouraging students to adhere to Disney’s four key tenets for success: safety, courtesy, show and efficiency.
“Have a magical day!” is scrawled across multiple boards in his classroom and is how he signs off to students at the end of every class.
During college, Zeiler studied abroad at The London School for Musical Theatre and worked at Idlewild and Soak Zone amusement park as a stage performer for American Entertainment Production. He earned a bachelor of science in music education from Slippery Rock University, where he graduated magna cum laude, and became certified in K-12 education.
Zeiler started out teaching general music and choir at the former Heights, Fawn and Grandview Upper elementary schools. In 2013, he joined the faculty at the high school and became musical director, co-vocal director, cast choreographer and stage manager. He later was promoted to choir director.
He now oversees several courses and programs, including variation, honors and show choirs and choreographing and directing the annual spring musical production. His first period this year is a class called “Broadway Beyond,” an elective that school administrators allowed him to create.
“It takes a special level of crazy, I guess,” Zeiler said of juggling the many roles. “You have to have it in your heart and soul. I truly know that I’m born to do what I do. … Yes, there are tired days, but it’s because we’re working so hard to achieve stuff.”
Spreading the ‘gift of music’
Beyond school-based activities, Zeiler organizes dozens of field trips and service events throughout the year that enable students to take their music to the community.
“I feel the best gift that we can give our community is the gift of music,” Zeiler said. “And this community is awesome, the Highlands community. You have Tarentum, you have Brackenridge, you have Fawn, you have Natrona and you have Natrona Heights. Every single family is so supportive and amazing.”
Among events they’ve performed at in recent years: fundraisers for the Lions Club, Rotary groups, blind children and food banks; the holiday Light Up Night celebration, the annual Tarentum-Brackenridge parade; and a retirement luncheon for the Pennsylvania State retirement system.
“We have to say no to people,” Zeiler said of the high demand.
The traveling choir has two on-call songs: the National Anthem and “Amazing Grace.” They sang both last week for a flag tribute ceremony outside the Eat’n Park in Natrona Heights in honor of those who lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks.
Kate Bielak, of Team Red White & Blue, the veterans group that organized the tribute, recalled how grateful she was for the gusto that Zeiler demonstrated when he flagged her down at a car wash a few years ago and made sure she knew his students were eager to participate in her annual event.
“Children singing and bringing their talents just makes it so much better,” said Bielak, “and it just takes the emotions that we’re feeling and struggling with as a nation and as a community, and it just gives us an outlet for that.”
Whether he’s conducting a rendition of “Amazing Grace” along Freeport Road or taking a seat in the school theater for opening night of the spring musical, Zeiler’s favorite moments — the ones that keep renewing his passion and boosting his already high energy — are when he gets to watch his students shine.
“When I get to sit back and just be in the director’s chair and watch my kids become instant giant stars, then that’s all I need in the world,” Zeiler said. “Those kids are rock stars, shining stars. They learned something, they grew from it, they mastered it.”
He knows that while they learn to hit the high notes, peruse Broadway scripts and design elaborate sets and costumes, his students are gaining lifelong skills such as discipline, teamwork and time management. He said he won’t stop teaching until he’s physically incapable of the task.
“I will do this until I can’t dance anymore,” Zeiler said. “I will do this as long as I possibly can.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .