Interview: Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

The Educator
Photos by Rachel Coward

Photos by Rachel Coward

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling teaches AP government and human geography at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, a school with a high poverty rate. His goal isn’t just to help his students pass the AP exam, which they do at three times the district average; it’s to shape well-informed and influential citizens of the future. He’s a powerful no-nonsense teacher but also a caring mentor to hundreds of local kids. He’s won numerous awards, including 2016’s Washington Teacher of the Year, but he far prefers discussing politics with teenagers to making acceptance speeches. “I want to see change,” the 36-year-old said. “I’m a teacher because I see it’s the best way to make Tacoma a better place.” Gibbs-Bowling is now a finalist for the 2016 National Teacher of the year. Here’s what else he had to say:

I was a terrible student. I was a pretty capable student, but I also didn’t apply myself as well. I kind of just slid through high school. The way I try to think about it is I had some good teachers in high school, but I was allowed to coast. So I try to be the kind of teacher that wouldn’t have put up with my own nonsense.

Here’s the thing: This is a high-poverty high school. The highest-poverty high school in Pierce County. It is. And there’s not really anybody close. We are trying to intentionally create a culture that says achievement matters. That scholarship is a good thing.

I give the kids a sales pitch, basically. Government is the one thing that’s empowered to kill you and take away your liberty and property. Like, calculus can’t kill you. Spanish class can’t draft you into the military. Biology and chemistry can’t tell you who you can and can’t marry. Government grants and takes away rights … if you don’t understand government, then you’re just lost and you’re always
blaming the wrong people.

I fancy myself an international nerd farmer, right? What I’m trying to do is plant nerd seeds all around (Tacoma’s)Eastside. And those nerd seeds can grow up and be productive citizens.

After being in the building for seven years and being in the neighborhood, I’m an institution in the community now. And that’s the way it should be. The idea of these free-agent teachers that roll from school to school every three years,
I couldn’t do that.

I’m an economist by trade. If the city of Tacoma and Pierce County are going to become the world-class places they’re supposed to be, and if we’re going to close the wealth gap and the property value gap between Pierce County and King County, then it’s going to be because we properly educate and economically develop over the long term the Eastside of Tacoma.

Nathan1Education is the greatest economic development there is. It’s saved more lives than anything besides modern medicine. It’s the only way.

The stats on Native American student achievement make me cry sometimes. The number of students in Tacoma who have some kind of special education diagnosis who get suspended is off the charts. And not just in Tacoma; nationwide it’s a thing. Homeless students. We have 90 students in our building who are identified as homeless. So they’re couch surfing or staying in a shelter, or, or, or, or. And like, they’re invisible to society.

I say to the students, “Nobody feels sorry for you, and nobody is going to rescue you. If you want better, you have to do and be better.”

If you have a relationship with a student, you can teach them anything. I show interest in who the kids are. I try to meet them where they are with the material … They believe that I have their best interests at heart and so since they believe that, they’ll do whatever I say, and let me push them.

I grew up on Hilltop. I got out of the hood, but I didn’t leave. So, I just went from one hood to another. So now I’m camped out here trying to just plant more seeds.

I had somebody come in last year and do a time study in my classroom, and the ratio of student voice to teacher voice is 60/40. So, it’s more them talking than me talking if I’m doing things right. That’s ideal for me.

I would just ask the city to invest in this part of town the way they’ve invested in other parts of town. These kids live on potholed streets, in segregated neighborhoods, in a food desert. They really do. There’s not a major grocery store on the Eastside of Tacoma.

Because I work with a staff of phenomenal teachers, I’m willing to do this work. If my principal left tomorrow, I’d look at my résumé because he is the hub of the wheel.

I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with this whole idea of teaching awards … The idea that you can pin the outcomes for individual kids on individual teachers is crazy to me.

I taught the American view of executive power to the President of China. I’m a government teacher. The only equivalent is, if I was a calculus teacher and got on a space shuttle. It’s mind blowing and mind numbing.

There are more kids from here who are going to college than were graduating from here 20 years ago … I don’t want to take credit for it. The kids are doing the work and leading the change. We’re pointing the way, but they’re doing the listening.

As a black male, teaching a class that often has black males, I’m far more afraid that my students are going to get shot by the police than killed by some crazy suburban kid with a gun. It’s far more likely that I’m going to lose a kid to random gang violence than I’m going to lose a kid to a school shooting.

Over in the closet over there I have a clothing bank for my kids. So my kids who don’t have dress clothes who have a job interview, scholarship interview, I keep dress clothes for them. That’s what we do here. Every teacher in the building has a drawer full of snacks because kids come to school hungry all the time.

If you want to get kids out of poverty, you have to replicate the material conditions of middle-class education.

The best part of American schooling is we take every kid no matter what, and try to teach them up. And this building is a shining example of what’s possible. Do we have failures? Absolutely. Do we have struggles? Absolutely. But we’re also a really amazing story.

Read more interviews.

is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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