U.S. Sen. Patty Murray delivered the surprise announcement in front of an all-school assembly Tuesday morning at Lincoln High School: Nathan Gibbs-Bowling was named one of the nation’s top teachers, receiving a $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
All it took was a description of his classroom — where he teaches government and human geography courses — and the cat was out of the bag.
“He knows that teaching is a creative art,” Murray told the assembly as she began to introduce the soon-to-be-named Milken winner. “In fact, I’ve heard that he turns his classroom into a courtroom where students debate Supreme Court cases.”
That was the giveaway. Every kid in the school immediately recognized who Murray was talking about, and the cheering erupted. Students leapt out of the stands in the Lincoln gym to congratulate Gibbs-Bowling, who has taught for five years at the century-old Tacoma high school.
“I was moved to tears by it,” Gibbs-Bowling said of the response.
He credited students and teaching colleagues with his success.
“The work you do is absolutely astounding,” he told the assembly. “This isn’t about me. I’m so honored and so touched right now. The work that you do pays off. Grades matter. Character matters. You all matter.”
Sponsored by the California-based Milken Family Foundation, the Milken Educator Award — dubbed “the Oscars of teaching” by Teacher Magazine — will be awarded this year to 35 educators nationwide. Gibbs-Bowling is the only Washington state winner this year.
He said he chose to teach in Tacoma as a way of investing in the community where he grew up. Gibbs-Bowling attended Jason Lee Middle School and graduated from Foss High School in 1997. He earned an associate’s degree from Pierce College, and a bachelor’s and master’s from The Evergreen State College.
He counts the public school system and his mother, Tommie CeBrun, as powerful influences, along with his wife, fellow Lincoln teacher Hope Teague Bowling.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot,” he said. “My mom was an amazing provider. She’s a superhero parent. I was able to make it through circumstances, and my students do the same thing.”
To see Gibbs-Bowling in action in the classroom is to witness an engaging, whirling dervish of a teacher, who stays a step ahead of students and who keeps them moving on pace toward a goal.
An expert in classroom management, Gibbs-Bowling is described by fellow educators as strict, rigorous, demanding and thoughtful — a combination of cheerleader, drill sergeant and professor.
He sets high standards for students. Example: They’re not allowed to enter his classroom until they complete homework assignments.
He teaches a successful senior seminar on how to apply for college and for scholarships — important to students at this high-poverty school. This year, his students have obtained scholarships to Gonzaga University and to the University of Washington. Others have had interviews at Harvard.
He believes “poverty or bad luck isn’t an excuse. It’s an opportunity.”
Gibbs-Bowling is active beyond the classroom as well.
He helped develop a Tacoma history curriculum and wrote a state history curriculum based on primary source materials. He was the first AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher at the school and led other teachers in learning about the national study-skills model.
He also is one of the founders of Teachers United, a 3-year-old network of teachers who work to improve education policy and their craft while working with local unions.
The money that comes with the Milken recognition is awarded to educators to use in any way they choose. Gibbs-Bowling said he’ll use much of it to pay off student loans.
But on Tuesday, as the news of his award was still sinking in, his mind was elsewhere. He said he was thinking about his upcoming human geography class, where students are researching the best spot in Tacoma to locate a food truck — an example of how he tries to connect class work to real life.
He said Lincoln’s neighborhood is one that needs economic development and small business entrepreneurship.
“If Tacoma is going to be a world-class city, it’s going to be because these kids did it,” Gibbs-Bowling said. “I believe in these kids. I want Lincoln to be known as the home of scholars first, and champions second.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 firstname.lastname@example.org @DebbieCafazzo debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com