Earlier this year, Beyoncé dropped a surprise video, “Formation,” a bold declaration of pride, of outrage, and of ambition, especially when she sang, “I just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.”
For Nate Bowling, the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, every student should be treated as if s/he could be a Bill Gates one day.
In a conversation with the tech icon himself, Bowling talks with the tech icon about his efforts to dismantle what we call the Belief Gap, the gulf between what students can achieve and what others think they can accomplish.
Bowling, a self-described “nerd farmer,” teaches at Lincoln High School, in Tacoma, where 70 percent of its students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch and half of the student population is Black or Latino. Yet the school’s graduation rate is 80 percent and 40 percent of students take AP classes.
Data has revealed students of color are far less likely to take AP classes. A big reason why is a teacher’s racial bias—White teachers are less likely to believe students of color can succeed academically and so they don’t encourage them to take challenging classes and apply to college. They don’t prod them to have big dreams.
More than ever, we can’t let a child’s socioeconomic status determine the course of his education. Bowling pushes students to take the most difficult courses available to them.
“I can’t teach the class like I would to a group of kids who were all on grade level, but those kids can achieve,” he told Gates. “I would rather have 100 percent of the kids in the most difficult class and have 25 pass the AP test, than have 25 kids in it and 100 percent pass.”
Teachers like Nate Bowling—Black men who hold their students to high expectations—are critical to reversing the Belief Gap. Only 2 percent of America’s 3.1 million teachers are Black males, and this number needs to grow to reflect the changing reality of schools in this nation. As Gates notes, there is a “New Majority” in our schools; over half of students live in poverty. Also, the majority of public school students are children of color. The teaching ranks must reflect these demographic shifts.
In the meantime, Bowling is an ardent advocate of professional development. Teachers, through hard work and training, can excel.
“You need a base level of aptitude to teach, but just because you have a Ph.D. in something doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at delivering content,” he said. “Teaching is part content, part parlor tricks, and it can be taught.”
Imagine how education could be transformed if we invested the energy to recruit and nurture teachers like Nate Bowling. There could be a lot more Bill Gates in the making.