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2019 Iowa Teacher of the Year reflects on his tenure

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Chris Burke is looking forward to reconnecting. No, it has nothing to do with the pandemic.

The 2019 Iowa Teacher of the Year is ending his tenure on May 31, and he cannot wait to get back to his classes

“When things were shiny and new as the Teacher of the Year, I fully immersed myself into this experience,” said the Dubuque middle school math teacher. “But as time went on, I realized just how much I missed the students in the classroom and my colleagues in the building.

“That’s why I am really excited about what comes next – reconnecting. I think we’re all experiencing that now – we realize each day how important people are to us.”

Prior to the pandemic, Burke was connecting all right. Perhaps it’s best to put it in numbers, as he did in his farewell to the State Board of Education last week:

  • 2,877: Number of audience members.
  • 3: Conferences
  • 12: Interviews
  • 7: Keynotes
  • 6,155; Miles Driven
  • 6: Miscellaneous Presentations
  • 6: National Meetings
  • 3: Panels
  • 14: Post-secondary Engagements
  • 8: Schools Visited with Former Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise
  • 20: Workshops Led
  • 4: Zoom Presentations

Oh, and during all of this, Burke’s wife, Betsy, gave birth to their son, Murphy, on Feb. 1. Murphy has a 2-year-old brother Max.

And then the pandemic occurred, cutting short Burke’s plans to travel an additional 4,400 miles to various engagements.

It will come as no surprise, then, that Burke’s passion in education is establishing relationships. 

“If we ask ourselves what the goal of education is, you’ll get varied responses,” he said. “For me it’s that students need to be in the right mindset to ensure that they can achieve in the classroom. I think about the teachers who had the biggest impact on me – when a teacher would see I needed a bit more investment.

“Those teachers who connected with me on a personal level, those are the ones who I would run through a wall for, who I would work my bones into the ground for.”

Educators cannot separate academics from social-emotional well being.

“We’re integrating both in the classroom,” Burke said. “We see teachers do this on a daily basis, where they are able to assess the well being of the child first before they move to the academic component.”

Burke said he was impressed with what he saw throughout the state.

“We have a very strong level of awareness and response to the social-emotional needs of our students,” Burke said.

On his national tours, Burke was proud to boast of his state’s accomplishments.

“Our teacher-leader program (TLC) is ahead of any other state,” he said. “TLC offers teachers a career path who might not otherwise serve in a formal capacity. They maximize the capacity of others through collaboration. Administrators say teacher leaders are essential. After all, teachers are experts in their field. For them to have a voice in the system is essential.”

Even well into his term as Teacher of the Year, there was always a bit of discomfort for Burke.

“I wouldn’t say that I ever envisioned myself in this role, because there are so many others I know who are more deserving,” he said. “What really struck me in traveling around the state was the enthusiasm among the districts about what they are doing. They were really passionate to share their stories.

“The state has a lot to be proud about.”

Burke’s experience reinforced a lesson he learned during orientation from Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010’s Iowa and National Teacher of the Year.

“Sarah said we should think about the reviews on Amazon, from one star to five stars, with five stars being the best,” he said. “She said, ‘teachers would rarely give themselves a five-star rating.’ Yet the very nature of our work is a five-star career. What we do is exceptional for society. We need to remember to celebrate our work and that of our colleagues.”

To incoming 2020 Iowa Teacher of the Year George Anderson, his advice is something he learned from 2018 Teacher of the Year Aileen Sullivan and Iowa Department of Education Consultant Isbelia Arzola: “Be you. Be true to yourself. Don’t try to conform to what others think you should be. It’s easy to have what some people believe is the imposter syndrome: Why do I deserve this? As long as George Anderson is going to be George Anderson, he will serve this state in a wonderful manner.”

Burke thinks of all the people he’d like to thank, from Wise to his Dubuque administrators and educators to his wife.

“The support they showed is incredible and I’m grateful,” he said. “That’s more than Iowa nice, you know? It’s how we know to care for people who are near and dear to us.”

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on June 16, 2021 at 11:20am.