Gary Bowman has seen it all during his time in the Osseo School District. For 36 years, the Iowa native has bounced around from teaching second, fourth and fifth grade, as well as being an instructional assistant in various schools.
But for every new role he took on throughout the district, Bowman was eventually pulled back to his first love: teaching fourth grade at Fernbrook Elementary. There he strives to help his students live out what he views as the most important thing a fourth-grader can learn: confidence.
When he entered college at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Bowman, now 59 years old, initially wasn’t sure education would be his calling. As a part of experimenting with courses during his freshman year, Bowman said he ended up in an education class “by mistake,” but immediately took a liking to the curriculum. “I just instantly connected,” he said.
During his first job search after college in 1985, Bowman connected with his former superintendent Marl Ramsey when Bowman was in grade school. Ramsey told Bowman there might be an opening in a place Bowman pronounced as O-c-o, Minnesota. Soon after, he got the job and was married that year.
Fourth graders have a special place in Bowman’s heart. The magical time of life where you can begin to count your age with two hands. “I just fell in love with fourth grade,” he said. “It is the magic year. They like the cutesy things but yet they still like to be challenged and stretched.”
Any former student of Bowman will probably remember how much he incorporated music into everything he did in the classroom. From breaking out into song to playing his ukulele, to reciting poetry, Bowman had a special way of connecting his students.
Aside from his musical talents, one of his favorite memories was the annual Hall of Presidents, where students would research and dress up as a former president, and then give a speech. “The students might not remember a math or writing lesson, but they will remember that,” Bowman said.
Intertwined among the times of learning and leisure, Bowman never lost focus of the impact he had on the students. “Your job is to instill confidence in those students you have for that year,” he said. “That is my goal every year. Instill that they can do anything.”
A month before Bowman’s retirement party this year, a colleague of his took all 36 yearbooks of Bowman’s career and transformed it into a parting gift. The result: a three-ring binder of 36 Bowman baseball cards, with his yearly picture in front and on the back, the names of all the students Bowman taught. After counting up all the years, the grand total of students is a number Bowman will never forget: 931. “If I ever got a tattoo, it would say 931,” he said.
Bowman said he still keeps in contact with a handful of the 931 but plans to join Facebook in retirement to connect with more former students. Frequently, Bowman receives letters and emails from his students thanking him for the impact he had on their lives, which means more to him than any paycheck. “Those notes are more meaningful than any amount of money that I could possibly get,” he said. “And I keep them all.”
With extra free time in retirement, Bowman is hoping to give back to the education field by mentoring young teachers and encouraging them to give students the confidence they need to succeed. “If you start to lay that groundwork where students believe in themselves that they can do anything, the door is wide open for them for success.”