It is an oft-repeated phrase among math teachers: Bring a pencil to class.

Chris Burke’s students at Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School in Dubuque use all manner of writing instruments, but he, himself, is a fan of the pen.

With a pencil, you can erase your mistakes and pretend they never happened, Burke said. The ink of a pen is a testament to where you have been.

“If we just try to erase the mistakes as though they never happened, then how do you learn?” he asks.

Burke, 35, an 11-year teaching veteran, was named the 2019 Iowa Teacher of the Year during an event Thursday at the school.

The math teacher was introduced by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in a surprise for students and staff. Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise, Dubuque Community School District leaders and members of Burke’s family also were among those in attendance.

It marked the first time a Dubuque teacher has garnered the award in its 60-year history, according to the state. Honorees serve as ambassadors for education and as liaisons to schools and organizations statewide.

District and school leaders said they could think of no one better to be recognized.

“What he’s thinking about at all times is you,” Roosevelt Principal Jeff Johll told the students who gathered in the gym for the announcement. “He shows the humility needed to be one of those great, great teachers.”

Burke has taught at Roosevelt since 2007 and was named Dubuque Community Schools’ Teacher of the Year in 2017.

In a speech during today’s event, Burke thanked the family, administrators, teachers and students who have empowered, encouraged and molded him over the years.

“Please know that the recognition bestowed today is not a reflection of one person,” he said. “Rather, it is the product of years of interactions with some of the kindest and most devoted and generous individuals to walk the Earth.”

Reflecting afterward, Burke said the impact he makes on students is a product of the impact others have made on him.

He said he recognizes that not all of his students have that same support, but that is why Roosevelt’s teachers walk the halls of the school — to help students be the best versions of themselves.

“We try to better ourselves so we can help shape them, guide them,” Burke said.

While the announcement was a surprise for Roosevelt students, eighth-grader Allison Klaas said that as soon as she heard the teacher of the year would be announced, she knew it would be Burke.

“He’s just that kind of teacher who teaches differently from everyone else,” she said.

Allison said Burke always learns ways to help his students better understand the material.

She also said he encourages students to move forward when they don’t do well on a test.

“He takes the time out of his day to make sure you understand and to make sure you’re not falling behind,” she said.

Plus, he is fun, according to eighth-grader Conner Frederick. Burke makes his students want to learn math.

“I’m not very good at math, but when I’m in his class, I understand everything,” Conner said.

Burke is a hard-working, caring teacher who is committed to excellence, Johll said.

“He has an unrelenting passion for students,” Johll said. “Students are the focus of everything he does. Everything.”

Superintendent Stan Rheingans said he believes Burke is the perfect recipient of the designation.

Burke is passionate about what he does, believes in students and develops relationships with them so his teaching makes an impact, Rheingans said.

“He really understands the big picture of, ‘To impact them in math, I have to do all these other things,’” Rheingans said.

Burke said his focus is on building relationships with students so they know he is invested in them and wants to empower them.

“If you establish a relationship, you can ask them to do greatness,” he said.

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