Something was up.

As Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa State Department of Education, entered Northeast Elementary School in Goose Lake, a dozen noticeably-giddy students were lined against a wall glaring intently at the small entourage coming through the main entrance.

The young students strained to contain their enthusiasm for even a few seconds, when the official “handoff” from the middle school students to their younger peers took place. The young students erupted with a chorus of “yay!” and quickly surrounded Wise. 

“This is the best part of my job,” quipped Wise, who was visiting Northeast Oct. 22. 

Wise’s Northeast visit was sandwiched between a morning visit to the Camanche Community School District and an afternoon visit to Delwood Community School District, which was celebrating the honor of being named a Blue-Ribbon School, one of just four in the state earning accolades for overall academic performance.

“It was so hard trying to keep (the kids) back from the door,” said one of the relieved educators who had been “prepping” the students. She wanted the kids to be enthusiastic when they greeted their important visitor.

Perhaps she did her job too well?

In the four years since Wise became director, he has visited more than 500 schools in more than 200 districts. He views the visits as a way to gain feedback on how education policy is impacting student learning.

There are four policies that he is primarily interested in hearing about: The first is the state’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) system, which is the most extensive in the nation; an early literacy initiative; a revamp of career technical education (CTE) to prepare students for careers in high-demand or critical growth industries; and the newest effort, the Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning, which affords students a chance to test-drive careers.

Accompanying Wise during the tours was Christopher Burke, who teaches eighth-grade math at Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School in Dubuque, was named Iowa Department of Education’s 2019 Teacher of the Year. 

Burke is the first-ever recipient from Dubuque in the department’s 60-year history.

Burke is an 11-year teaching veteran who uses real-world examples to make his mathematics lessons come alive. He said he persuades students to discover for themselves the concepts behind math.

Burke, 35, also a teacher-leader at the middle school. He is one of many educators in his family, including his wife, mother and sister. His wife, Betsy, another teacher-leader, also works at the middle school.