State Teacher of the Year from Tacoma talks about giving teachers a voice

VIDEO: Tacoma teacher of the year talks politics, education, change agents

Lincoln High School teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling sees education as a key to making Tacoma a world class city. “I’m creating a group of citizens who are going to go out and be change agents,” said Gibbs-Bowling, Washington’s Teacher of the Year. “E
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Lincoln High School teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling sees education as a key to making Tacoma a world class city. “I’m creating a group of citizens who are going to go out and be change agents,” said Gibbs-Bowling, Washington’s Teacher of the Year. “E

A very grumpy, but very caring, black Mr. Rogers — with a Taliban beard.

That’s how one student at Lincoln High School describes teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling.

It’s a description that might ruffle the feathers of some educators. But when Gibbs-Bowling overheard it, he thought it sounded pretty creative.

“The kids here are amazing,” he says.

He’s quick to credit students and colleagues for his success at the high-poverty Tacoma high school, where he’s taught for nearly seven years.

But there’s obviously something in the secret sauce Gibbs-Bowling serves up in his spirited AP government and human geography classes, because in recent years, he has been raking in accolades for his teaching.

In 2014, he was named a Milken Educator, a national award that came with $25,000 from the Milken Family Foundation. Earlier this year, he was named a regional Teacher of the Year, representing the Puget Sound area. And in September, he was honored as Washington’s state Teacher of the Year.

Gibbs-Bowling, 36, is outspoken in his ideas about teaching and improving his profession. But he says he completed the application as state Teacher of the Year only because someone nominated him and his principal, Pat Erwin, made him do it.

“To me it’s insane that people make a big deal about me doing my job,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is elevate kids in poverty and give them the same chance that kids in the middle class have. There shouldn’t be awards for this. All I want to do is change lives.”

The News Tribune caught up with Gibbs-Bowling during a brief break between classes at Lincoln, right before winter break. He nibbled on cold pizza for lunch while answering questions about his profession and what it’s like to be Washington’s Teacher of the Year.

As Washington’s Teacher of the Year, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling will, along with teachers from around the country, get to meet President Barack Obama during White House ceremonies for national Teacher of the Year.

Q: What does it mean to you to be Washington’s Teacher of the Year?

A: I refute the idea that I’m the best teacher in Washington. I just say I’m the designated voice among many.

I get to represent all the teachers in the state. I am a voice on policy issues. I am a voice on teacher quality and positivity within the profession. It’s a career field that I think doesn’t get the regard it deserves, and one of my goals is to elevate the profession.

Q: What have you been doing as Teacher of the Year since September?

A: I had a couple of speaking engagements. But the chaos doesn’t start for me until January. I’m really apprehensive about January. I’m going to be in my classroom for a total of 12 days. I will be going to San Diego, and I’m going to be in San Antonio. I’m going to be doing some work up in Seattle.

I sent a grumpy email to my principal about it. Nobody gets in the game with the idea of being on the “edu-celebrity” lecture circuit. It’s not what I want to do. I want to teach poor white kids and brown kids on the East Side of Tacoma. That’s why I’m here.

Q: You’re a hometown person, right?

A: Born on the Hilltop, at Tacoma General. Went to Stanley (Elementary), Jason Lee (Middle School), Foss (High School, class of 1997) and Evergreen (State College) Tacoma campus.

Q: As a young man, who influenced you?

A: My dad passed away my sophomore year (of high school). Within a year and a half, I lost my father and both of my uncles, all to heart attacks.

I went into what my mom, in hindsight, calls my Holden Caulfield phase. I kind of did this whole self-loathing and depression thing. And my transcript shows it.

Major Phillips (James Phillips, ROTC instructor at Foss) kind of shook me by the collar. Major Phillips saved my life.

Q: When you were a little kid growing up here, did you ever think, “Someday I’m gonna be a teacher?”

A: No! Honestly, I wanted to be (United States) Senate majority leader. I remember Tom Foley was speaker of the House, and the speaker’s job seemed kind of crazy. I enjoyed the idea that the Senate was kind of a check on the wildness of the House.

Q: So instead of becoming a politician, you teach about the political process. Why?

A: I went into teaching politics, which I think is actually better and more fun. Instead of influencing policy and getting my way, I’m creating a group of citizens who are going to be change agents.

My principal says this all the time, and I fundamentally agree with it — that the future of the city of Tacoma is in the hands of our staff. If Tacoma is going to become a world-class city, it’s going to be because we economically develop the East Side of Tacoma. I’m teaching the future police officers, future social workers, future small business owners, future heads of neighborhood associations.

Young men who lack self-control — society has plans for them: incarceration, under-employment, and a life locked in to menial labor.

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

Q: Talk about your theory on self-discipline, especially as it relates to the young men you teach.

A: Young men who lack self-control — society has plans for them: incarceration, underemployment and a life locked into menial labor.

Q: You tell your students that?

A: Absolutely. We have some amazingly frank conversations about politics. I think that’s why I’m successful in teaching government. I make government real and relevant to them.

We talk about how government is empowered to take away your life, liberty and property. Chemistry can’t do that.

When we talk about civil liberties, I talk about how to deal with the police. I have someone from the ACLU come in. We have some very intentional conversations about what the Fourth Amendment (which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by the government) means and what Mapp v. Ohio (a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case involving Fourth Amendment protections) meant.

These court cases aren’t abstract to them. Government matters, and I make it matter to them.

Q: Let’s talk some more about being Washington Teacher of the Year. In February, you’ll learn if you’re one of four semi-finalists for national Teacher of the Year. But regardless, you get to go to the White House, correct?

A: In the last week of April, I’m going to the White House. You get a photo next to the president in the Rose Garden.

Q: Do you get to talk to him?

A: I have talked to previous teachers of the year. There’s a moment to chat while you’re posing for photos. The line I’m going to play is “You know (Chinese) President Xi came to my classroom (in September). You can’t let him show you up like that.”

Q: So you’re going to invite President Obama to come to Lincoln?

A: Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I?

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo