Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: The uncomfortable truth of Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a teacher at Lincoln High School, was named Washington State Teacher of the Year in 2015.
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a teacher at Lincoln High School, was named Washington State Teacher of the Year in 2015. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling is kind of a big deal right now.

An advanced-placement government and human geography teacher at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, he’s the most recent recipient of the state Teacher of the Year award and one of four finalists for 2016 National Teacher of the Year.

When China’s President Xi Jinping visited Lincoln in September, it was Gibbs-Bowling and his students who helped roll out the welcome mat.

The young, black education leader is on the cover of the most recent South Sound Magazine. He’s also been prominently featured in this paper four times in the last few months. And when the latest issue of my Evergreen State College alumni magazine arrived in the mail, there he was — the 2004 and 2006 graduate highlighted for all his accomplishments.

But this week, it’s just over 1,000 words on his typically under-the-radar blog — A Teacher’s Evolving Mind — that really has people talking.

“I want to tell you a secret,” the post, which went online Sunday, begins. “America really doesn’t care what happens to poor people and most black people.

“There I said it.”

He sure did. Call it his Kanye West moment.

Gibbs-Bowling’s post, which he tells me he pounded out on the flight home from a Teachers of the Year conference in San Antonio last weekend, can be broken down into two main points, both of them worth discussion and thought. That’s especially true for a family like mine, who lives on Hilltop but, despite reservations, sends our daughter to school in the North End.

“As a nation, we’re nibbling around the edges with accountability measures and other reforms, but we’re ignoring the immutable core issue,” he writes, contending that talk of things such as “teaching evaluations, charter schools, test refusal, and (fights over) Common Core,” distract from a much larger societal problem that we’re content to ignore.

“Much of white and wealthy America is perfectly happy with segregated schools and inequity in funding,” he continues. “We have the schools we have, because people who can afford better get better.”

It’s a reality Gibbs-Bowling says his pessimistic side fears is too deep and entrenched to change. After all, he contends, nationally the political will simply doesn’t exist for radical moves toward full integration, or busing, or the redrawing of school or district boundaries so poorer students of color can attend school in wealthy, predominantly white enclaves. While he says the Tacoma School District is doing “a better job than most” when it comes to paying attention to “what’s happening on this end of town,” what he sees in places such as Detroit, Chicago and even south Seattle helped push him over the edge.

In response, he writes, he’s dedicating himself to a goal he believes he can help attain — a goal he believes can change the lives of students in the neighborhoods and school districts across the country that white flight has forsaken.

And it’s something he knows a little bit about.

“If you ain’t talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain’t listening,” he writes, arguing for national policies and incentives that help keep our best teachers where they can do the most good: in our neediest schools.

“Better teaching is the one thing we never really talk about,” the blog continues. “Better teaching is the only mechanism we have left.”

All that’s missing from the post is a mic drop, but perhaps it’s implied.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Gibbs-Bowling told me by phone Tuesday of the growing reaction, which by Monday included a write-up on the Washington Post’s website, invitations from the New York Observer and The Guardian to run similar pieces or excerpts from the original and over 300 new Twitter followers.

“Foresight’s not really my thing,” he says, admitting that he didn’t see the buzz around the blog post coming and it probably took him longer to find a picture to use than it did to put into words the frustration in his heart.

“It’s literally viral. … The reason this took off is because it’s not nuanced. It’s visceral.”

Like the observations about education and institutional racism that led to our phone conversation, that one’s on point too. Yes, you can parse Gibbs-Bowling’s hot take into bits, and probably find nuggets or priorities to take issue with. I’m sure people are doing that as you read this.

But, on the most important level, what he’s managed to do is tap into a deeper, uncomfortable truth that should be enough make all of us squirm.

There are two public education systems in America. One for wealthy, mostly white suburbs or the nice parts of town, and one for everyone else.

And, to a lesser extent, the same holds true in Tacoma. Yes, a limited number of students from poorer neighborhoods — like mine — might be able to get into schools in the North End if their parents know how to navigate Tacoma’s school-choice system and can get the kids back and forth to schools across town, but perhaps even that has unintended consequences. As Gibbs-Bowling tells me, “We won’t reach true equity until middle class parents are willing to send their kids to schools that aren’t 80 percent white.”

To his credit, Washington’s Teacher of the Year isn’t worried about making the likes of me uncomfortable.

“I think a lot of people, when they get into this position, they get cautious,” Gibbs-Bowling says of the platform success has given him.

“I’m going to speak my brand of truth no matter what.”

It’s a truth that should make all of us think long and hard.

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