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Washington’s 2016 Teacher of the Year shares his secret

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, who teaches AP Government at Tacoma's Lincoln High School, was Washington's 2016 Teacher of the Year. (Dave Ross, KIRO Radio)

The state Legislature still isn’t sure how much more money to put into education. But at some point, I hope they consult with Washington’s 2016 Teacher of the Year.

His name is Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, he teaches AP Government at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School. As we sat in his classroom, he told me that higher salaries would obviously attract and keep better teachers. But he also said that the key to effective teaching goes beyond money.

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Gibbs-Bowling says building relationships with students is critical. He’s been “run ragged” by the same group of students that were perfect for another teacher. Instead of jumping straight into subject matter that may be completely foreign to them, Gibbs-Bowling makes pitches on why it’s important and builds a foundation.

But student performance isn’t only reliant on the relationship with a teacher. It often starts at home. Gibbs-Bowling describes Lincoln High as a high-poverty school.

“Over in the closet, I have 15 dress shirts,” Gibbs-Bowling says as he waits for his class to begin. “Those are for my students who have job interviews and scholarship interviews because they don’t have them &#8211 it’s a clothing bank for young men.”

If you think there are files in his filing cabinet you would be wrong. There are snacks for his students.

“I don’t think people understand how chaotic and disruptive poverty is to learning,” Gibbs-Bowling explains. “If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from; if your housing situation isn’t stable; if you don’t know if there is going to be a consistent adult in your life … it is really hard to focus on the minutiae of school when everything else is in chaos.”

With as many black students as the school has, does it help that Gibbs-Bowling is black, too?

“It’s important I care,” he explains.

That being said, Gibbs-Bowling would like to see more “teachers of color.” And it’s not because they have some magical talent that helps them relate to the students.

“I think it’s important that students are able to see people who look like them, delivering content as professionals,” Gibbs-Bowling said. “I have to imagine it’s very difficult for a frustrated black male to go six periods a day and see, essentially, what are interchangeable 25-year-old white women all day. That sounds harsh, but I imagine as a young male that’s difficult to deal with.”

Despite winning the award, Gibbs-Bowling makes sure to point out that he isn’t doing this by himself.

“I work with an amazing staff,” he says, just before the bell rings.

Listen to Dave’s interview with Nathan Gibbs-Bowling:

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