Meet Phyllis Bowie, Anchorage’s longest-serving teacher who’s retiring after 50 years

A woman helps a student with their homework.
Phyllis Bowie assists a student with their schoolwork at SAVE High School in Anchorage on Monday, May 13, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

It would be understandable for marathon runners to lose pace over the last few miles, but not Phyllis Bowie. On a recent morning, Bowie was a bit flustered trying to help students reach the finish line of graduation. 

“They’re pressured, you know. They wait till the last minute,” Bowie said. “It’s a common denominator with some kids and procrastinating.”

Bowie is a social studies teacher at SAVE High School. She has touched the lives of thousands of students over her 50 years with the Anchorage School District. On Wednesday, she’ll retire as the longest-serving teacher in the district. 

Bowie’s goal is to get struggling students to graduation, and she shows her students tough love when it’s needed to get the job done. 

“I’ll help you, I’m not gonna do it for you,” Bowie said. “You’d better hold your own, and then we’ll get there together. But I am not going to just give it to you. We’ll meet, I will explain it to you, you will let me know what you don’t understand. And together, we’ll get what we need.” 

Her students and coworkers describe her as the cornerstone of the school, and have crowned her the queen of alternative education. 

A woman in purple shirt.
Phyllis Bowie stands outside S.A.V.E. High School in Anchorage on Monday, May 13, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

In 1972, the district opened SAVE, an alternative school aimed at getting high school junior and seniors back on track to graduate after falling behind. The acronym stands for Specialized Academic Vocational Education – classes are part time and students are required to work at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a job training program such as King Tech. Bowie took the job after working as a teacher’s aide at Fairview Elementary. 

Alice Carlson is one of Mrs. Bowie’s students. On her first day of class, Bowie asked about Carlson’s mother, who she also taught. Following stints at other non-traditional schools, Carlson hit her stride at SAVE.

“She’s helping me graduate and I probably would not have by the end of this year without her,” Carlson said. 

Bowie is the last line of defense when other school situations just aren’t working for students. SAVE principal Lisa Mounds-Craft consistently uses one word to describe Bowie: Real. 

“She’s going to fuss at you if you don’t have your work done when she asks you to. She’s going to keep it real and say I’m not happy with that,” Mounds-Craft said. “Kids don’t want to disappoint Mrs. Bowie because they know that she genuinely cares and loves them for their authentic self, and you don’t find kids doing that very often for teachers. There is something about her that motivates them to be successful, and too, they want to make her proud.” 

While Bowie went over one student’s tasks left to complete in order to graduate that afternoon, she watched other students out of the corner of her eye.

“Do you have work to do?” Bowie rhetorically asked a boy laughing in the corner of the class. “Let’s do it.”

The tough, no-nonsense demeanor Bowie maintains in her classroom is the hallmark of her brand as a teacher. Born into a military family in South Carolina in 1950, Bowie began elementary school during a time of immense change in education. 

“I initially started out in an all segregated school,” Bowie said. “I didn’t change to an integrated program until I was in the seventh grade, and my dad was stationed in Massachusetts.” 

In just the last five decades she’s spent teaching, the use of technology in the classroom has exploded. Mounds-Craft said that even before she became principal at SAVE three years ago, she knew the legend of Phyllis Bowie.

“She has mastered individualized learning,” Mounds-Craft said. “Even with the invention of like Google and kids just being able to get on and just looking up an answer, she motivates them to actually learn and read the text instead of finding the easy way out.”

Janet Emmsley has spent the last eight years working at SAVE, and said students aren’t the only ones who can get some tough love from Bowie. 

“She’s become a mother figure to a lot of the staff that’s coming in,” Emmsley said. “She takes them under their wing and kind of like shows them the guidelines.”

Phyllis married her husband, Lance Bowie in 1971 in Tacoma, Washington. Lance said immediately after the ceremony, the newlyweds moved to Anchorage where Lance had a teaching job lined up. Phyllis finished her masters degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage and started with the Anchorage School District soon after.

Lance retired two years ago after nearly five decades as a principal, mostly in Anchorage. Together, the Bowie’s have 99 years of experience in schools. 

“Every time we’re out and about, it’s, it’s rare, where she doesn’t know one of the kids or I don’t know one of the kids,” Lance Bowie said. “We call them kids, but they’re adults.”

For 50 years, Mrs. Bowie has been helping students complete the marathon of their secondary education, and even in her last few days on the job, she has more to give. Lance said that his wife is there for every one of her students, whenever they need it.

“They needed her help graduating this week and she was there. She never misses,” Lance Bowie said. “I’ve known her to get mad at kids, never to give up on the kid, and you’re going to graduate because that’s what we’re going to do here.” 

Mounds-Craft hopes that the district will rename the school after Bowie. On Monday, Bowie will attend the SAVE graduation one last time to see the students she guided walk across the stage to receive their diploma. 

“Putting out young informed kids, just color me happy when they walk across the stage,” Bowie said. “They understand that now it is up to them. You’ve got to make a difference. You’ve had an opportunity. You’ve had really a personalized education, that the district has been good enough to keep us going. Now what are you going to do?” 

So what’s Bowie going to do now? After inspiring so many Anchorage students, she’s excited to spend more time with her three grandkids in retirement.

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at or 907-550-8487. Read more about Tim here

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