Matt Driscoll

Two of Tacoma’s top educators are leaving. The reasons why should serve as a warning

To varying degrees, there’s frustration and anticipation in both their voices.

The frustration, from two of Tacoma’s most well-respected educators, largely has structural origins. At a low-income high school like the one they’ve both taught at for many years now, they’ve seen how teachers are asked to do more than teach. They say their positions have often meant acting as social workers, therapists, college counselors and even food bank operators at varying times.

They’ve also been active community members in a progressive city they, nonetheless, see as routinely failing its people of color.

The weight of all this has taken its toll.

Then there’s the new adventure ahead, which is cause for excitement. By this time next year, both will be teaching in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, at an acclaimed international school. Both believe the opportunity will provide for career growth in an atmosphere that values their worth as mid-career educators far more than the U.S. education system currently does.

On Monday, Lincoln High School’s Nate Bowling — a former Milken Award winner and the 2016 state Teacher of the Year — announced he’d be leaving the school at the end of school year. So, too, will his wife, Hope Teague-Bowling, who teaches sophomore honors English and junior AP Language and Composition, in addition to serving as chair of Lincoln’s Language Arts department.

“As much as we’re going to hate losing Nate, we’re going to hate having Hope leave,” said Lincoln High School principal Pat Erwin. “They’re two of the best practitioners I have ever seen.”

For a city that’s grown accustomed to pointing toward both as the highest examples of what Tacoma has to offer, inside and outside the classroom, the news of their pending departure was bittersweet. That’s how Tacoma Schools superintendent Carla Santorno aptly described her reaction.

There’s joy in seeing the duo pursue a new chapter, but pain in realizing they’ll soon be gone.

There’s also a potential warning to be had, in Tacoma and beyond.

What does it say, and what does it portend, when two of our best and brightest educators are so burned out, bummed out and overburdened by the realities of teaching here that they’re leaving?

Spoiler: It should serve as a warning.

“This is about the state of the teaching profession nationwide right now. Essentially, the job we ask teachers to do at schools like Lincoln is unsustainable over the long-term if you want to maintain excellence,” Bowling explained Tuesday. “Maintaining excellence is really important to me, for a host of obvious reasons.

“That burden and workload, it’s not something that I feel we can both sustain and maintain the level of excellence we demand from ourselves.”

For Teague-Bowling, the possibility of travel and the flexibility teaching provides have always been an allure. She grew up in the Philippines and has lived in Hong Kong, China and Albania. Eventually teaching abroad, she says, has always been part of the plan.

So she’s excited, and while she shares many of the same frustrations as her husband — and certainly the same sting in leaving —Teague-Bowling strikes a slightly less cynical tone.

“I love Tacoma, I love Washington state, and there’s a lot of really amazing things that are happening here, but stepping out will give us a chance to see what else can be done, and other ideas, and the way that the world is working outside of this place,” Teague-Bowling explained. “Maybe we can use some of that, and we can adapt and continue to inform our practice here.

“So this is an opportunity, on a very practical classroom level, but I think also on an education systems level as well.”

Still, both return to the growing frustrations that — it’s clear — serve as a motivating factor.

Bowling, who grew up in Tacoma, cites a long list of annoyances and grievances. Foremost, it’s the “lack of social services and interventions” that reverberate in his classroom, as well as the limited opportunity for advancement for teachers at his stage of the career.

“This is going to sound more crass than I want it to … but if I wanted to spend a quarter of my time doing social work, I would have been a social worker,” he said. “Just given the lack of stability that kids have in their lives, teachers at schools like Lincoln, in order to do their jobs, have to spend an insane amount of time doing that work.”

“Neither of us want to be principals, but we also want to continue to get better at it,” Teague-Bowling added. “It’s not like we can’t get better here, but there’s a limited opportunity for it.”

In discussing his motivation outside the profession, Bowling quickly points to things like the continued presence of the Northwest Detention Center on the Tacoma Tideflats, neo-Nazi activity mere blocks from his home on the East Side and working in a city that’s still largely segregated north to south.

“I’m never more aware of how segregated our city is than when on the day before graduation, Lincoln’s coming in (to the Tacoma Dome) and Stadium’s coming out,” he added. “I don’t know what else to do to get this city to be better than I’ve done. I’ve given Tacoma everything I owe Tacoma, and I owe it myself to see what else is out there.”

That hasn’t made the decision easy. Far from it.

It’s leaving Lincoln that cuts deepest.

“I don’t think about this part, because I get choked up when I think about it. I’m 39 years old, and I’ve been here for a decade. This place is in my blood,” Bowling said. “But I’m also a professional, and at some point professionals need to remember that they are professionals, and do what’s best for them.

“And what’s best for me, at this point, is to move on.”

Added Teague-Bowling, succinctly: “Lincoln is family. … I try not to think about it too much.”

In the days since their imminent departure was announced, I’m sure many people in Tacoma have had the same reaction. Given the scope of the loss, it’s understandable.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let that prevent us from thinking about the reasons they’re leaving and what it says about our city and about the things we ask our teachers to do.

Because the reasons why two prized educators are packing their bags is telling, whether we’re ready to face them or not.