An Open Letter to My Seniors (About Adulthood and Obligation)

One of the earliest posts on this blog was about teacher absenteeism and how it harms students. Given that, it only seems appropriate that I share how I am asking my students to cope with my upcoming Washington State Teacher of the Year related absences. This is a glimpse inside my head, my classroom and my practice.

Dear AP Government & Politics Scholars,

In teaching there are waypoints--moments throughout the year where we reflect on what is going well and where we can improve or change what’s happening in our rooms and with our classes. Thanksgiving is a major one. We are two and a half months into a nine month marathon of a school year. We have learned so much in gov, but then again we haven’t even scratched the surface. We still have the media, Civil Rights & Civil Liberties and policymaking institutions ahead of us. At this point, you know more about politics than the average American, but we still have miles to go.

As I sit down to start this, it is the Wednesday of Thanksgiving Break. Ms. Teague, Ms. Bockus, Mr. Ruby and Ms. Letourneau and I are all gathered at a cafe to commiserate over our grading and mix some adult company in with the mountains of quizzes and essays that we have to wade through. I am taking a break from grading to share my thoughts with you.

I need your help… well, more accurately, you need to help yourselves. At the beginning of the year, you made a choice to be here. No one has to take AP classes and plenty of kids go to college and do fine without them. You each probably have a friend (or several) that mock(s) you for “always working on Bowling’s homework.” Many of you are taking a hit to your GPA by being in here because of my strict grading policies. You could have taken easier classes, where many of you would’ve earned an A. You chose to be here. You chose to deal with my expectations, pushiness, workload and (occasional) rudeness. That choice is appreciated and honored.

But, sometimes events conspire against us.

As you know, in September I was named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year. This is a huge honor and an important validation of not just my work, but yours as well, and everything happening here at Lincoln. This is not the Lincoln that existed in the 1990s (when you were born and when I was in high school). It’s a much better place to teach and learn than it was then. With that success has come recognition: a KCTS Golden Apple Award for LC in 2011, back-to-back recognition as one of America’s Most Challenging Schools from the Washington Post, numerous reports in local and national media, and a visit from a Head of State

I pride myself on working hard and being here everyday. I don't think I've ever taken a sick day in ten years of teaching. Sure, I have missed days for conferences, trainings, appointments, etc., but I always try and want to be here for you. However, this year is going to be a departure from the norm and you need you to step up:

  • December 3-4, I will be in Olympia with the Regional Teachers of the Year from around the state for meetings with state level policymakers and a newly formed Washington Teacher Advisory Council that I will serve on.
  • January 5, I will be in Seattle for meetings with groups that want to hear what teachers think about state ed policy (this is our studies about influencing policy, happening in real life).
  • January 20-23, I will be in San Antonio for a convening of the State Teachers of the Year from all 50 states and the US territories.
  • January 28-31, I will be in San Diego participating in a nationwide teaching conference called ECET2.

Honestly, I am pretty unhappy about this. In one eight week period I will miss more days than I have missed in the last three years combined and those are only the dates I know for sure; there will be more. The last week in April, I will go to Washington DC and be recognized along with the other State Teachers of the Year at the Whitehouse (I know crazy, right?). I am also expected to address the state teachers' union gathering in Spokane and the State PTA Convention on dates yet to be determined.

All of this is unfair to you.

There is no other way to put it. It takes me away from what I love to do most (besides eating BBQ and watching soccer). I am doing my best to make sure I have the same substitute(s) on days I am gone. It will either be Ja’wanne who you’ve had or Ms. Schaffer (who was my go to sub when many of you had me freshmen year). We can’t treat these as off days. If there is nonsense in my absence, rather than hustle, we will fall apart. If your expectations for yourselves are low, this will become just another class, rather than the special place (that I think) you all know it is. You need to self-manage. You know our routines by now:

  • I will ask you to come in and thoughtfully discuss the reading.

  • I will ask you to teach each other.

  • I will ask you to lead.

  • Most importantly, I will ask you to be the amazing, emerging intellectuals and scholars that I know each of you are.

Adulthood is dumb sometimes. My reward for being recognized for my teaching is getting pulled from my classroom. But we can’t let that be an excuse. This a glimpse of what’s coming next year--sorry, I am not going to college with you--nor will Erwin, Clausen or the Joneses. Grad assistants at universities aren’t known for their phenomenal pedagogy. You will have to own and earn your learning and paths.

This all may sound cheesy or overwrought, but it’s important to me that I let you know where my head is… I owe you that. We have no time to waste. We must be relentless. We must be accountable to each other and you must be as rad as I know you are. Erwin always says “teaching causes learning.” Our motto for years at Lincoln has been “Lincoln Abes, absolutely better everyday.”

We have to embody those. This year, you will need to walk that talk.

Yours in consistent earnestness and persistent pushiness,

Nathan G. Gibbs-Bowling, Your Teacher






A Brief Follow-up on Showing Up

A Brief Follow-up on Showing Up

I’d like to offer a few quick follow-up points on my last post about absenteeism in the profession.

The day after I posted the blog entry I was approached by several colleagues who inquired about the identity of “Ms. X”. I declined to identify who X was (for obvious professional reasons), but noted to myself that nearly half a dozen names were tossed my way as possible candidates. That’s telling.

There were also a couple of comments on that post: one came from a co-worker at my old school and one from one of the most thoughtful teachers I know, James Boutin. He said:

“I'd like more information about it. What states, districts, or schools does it happen most often in? Or do we see it pretty consistent across districts? Why are those chronic offenders chronic offenders?”

I don’t have all the data he wished for, but I was able, with some help, to locate some data on Puget Sound District’s Educator Equity Profile.

A Lesson from my Students on Teacher Absenteeism

A Lesson from my Students on Teacher Absenteeism

This afternoon I sat down with a student for some “real talk” about their attendance. If you’ve been in the profession for awhile--especially if you work in a high-poverty school--you know the talk:

Once the class gets working after your initial directions, you take the student out in the hall, they’re avoiding eye contact, you’re trying to figure out the best route to take.... “I know your life is very complicated. It’s more complicated than mine was when I was your age. Heck, it’s more complicated than mine is now… I really enjoy having you in class and watching you learn and grow. The class is a better place when you are here…. I want you to graduate on time and be successful in life. I have concerns that given your attendance… you’re setting yourself up for failure down the road.” In an advanced case or one where I have a good relationship with the student I might say something like “I love you, but given your attendance, you’re basically unemployable in the future. I want you to have a better life--you need to pull it together.”