Interview: Nathan Gibbs-Bowling

The Educator
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Photo by Rachel Coward

Washington’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, teaches AP government and human geography at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, a school with a high poverty rate. He’s also among four finalists for the 2016 National Teacher of the Year award. If he wins, President Barack Obama will celebrate his dedication to education at the White House this spring. But Gibbs-Bowling far prefers discussing politics with teenagers to making acceptance speeches. His goal is to shape well-informed and influential citizens of the future.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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is the managing editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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