Most teachers work in relative obscurity, known to their students but largely invisible beyond the classroom. Last week, however, a history teacher in one of Tacoma’s high-poverty high schools attracted the attention of one of the wealthiest men on the planet.
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, 34, felt little except annoyance when told to report to an all-school assembly at Lincoln High last week. Moments later, he was handed a $25,000 Milken Educator Award from disgraced financier-turned-philanthropist Michael Milken.
“We give Grammys to musicians, gold medals to Olympians, Nobels to scientists and others. But we give too little recognition to the people with society’s most important job – educators,” Milken said.
The rest of the week was a whirlwind for Gibbs-Bowling. Caught on a Friday afternoon while unloading his dishwasher, the history teacher reflected on his new platform and the ways that teaching has evolved.
Q: Did you always plan to become a teacher?
A: I didn’t. If you would have met me at 17, and said I was going to become a teacher and win this award, I would have laughed in your face. I was that student in the third row – smart but doing just enough to get by. I was a high-C, low-B student, an academic under-performer. I didn’t really flourish until I got to college.
Q: You’ve spoken about the lack of relevance in a lot of classroom lessons. But isn’t there a basic canon of knowledge that students need in order to be educated citizens – even if some of that knowledge isn’t immediately relevant to their lives?
A: I think there is a canon but it’s evolving. It’s more a canon of skills now. So instead of my kids knowing each of the Articles of Federation, for example, it’s about understanding what the Articles are based off of. It’s more idea-based than fact-based.
Q: What do you see as the greatest need among students?
A: It’s socioeconomic, really. A kid in a high-poverty school can compete in a classroom with a kid anywhere. But it’s outside of my classroom where kids need a leg up. The dialogue around poverty in education has been really hollow. We behaved for a long time like poor kids can’t learn, which is a lie. Then it was we can’t have high expectations of kids because of poverty. Now it’s swung completely the other way, as if poverty is not a factor.
Q: How do you feel about accepting an award from Michael Milken, convicted of securities fraud? How do you square his illegal activities with the fact that he remains one of the wealthiest men in the world? Does that suggest to students that maybe crime does pay?
A: During the assembly I was like, whoa, this can’t be the same Michael Milken. But now I kind of like it. He did wrong, he went to prison and when he came out he’s done some really good work. There are a lot of millionaires – even billionaires – who could do the same thing, but chose not to. And what Michael Milken did is nothing compared to the damage done to the economy before the 2008 collapse.
Q: What do you see as the greatest problem in teaching today?
A: I think we have a really flawed method for making education policy in Washington state. It was stunning to me one time when I went down to Olympia to testify – I was the only educator heard by the panel. There is no other industry in the country that has so much dictated to it without teachers at the table. We’ve been passive for too long. It’s true that if you’re working in a high poverty school it’s very hard to step out of the classroom to advocate, but we have to. Our model of teacher preparation in Washington state is broken.
Q: What are you going to do with the $25,000?
A: Pay off my student loans from grad school. And put a chunk aside for the tax bill that’s coming next year.