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Award-winning teacher talks settlement, White House visit
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2016-07-05

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Teacher of the year awardee Brett Bigham's journey as an educator began when he took a job as a substitute teacher and was nearly ended when he was fired for saying he was gay.

"I became a substitute teacher because I was bored with my writing job and I ended up loving it," said Bigham.

After completing his master of science in special education degree at Portland State University, Bigham began teaching in Portland, where he was named 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year and was given the 2015 National Education Association's National Award for Teaching Excellence. He was one of 53 teachers of the year invited to the White House to meet President Barack Obama in 2014.

Bigham also holds the distinction of being one of the first openly LGBTQ Teacher's of the Year as well as the first Oregon special education teacher and the first teacher of students outside of the PK-12 grade levels ( he taught life skills to 18-21-year-olds with developmental disabilities ) to be named teacher of the year. He was also given the National Education Association's LGBT Caucus Teacher Role Model Award in the Summer of 2015.

While Bigham was being feted by these organizations, he was also being harassed by his supervisor at the Multnomah Education Service District. Bigham explained that right after he got the 2014 Teacher of the Year award he came out publicly at a Jan. 2014 event.

Bigham said after the speech his supervisor told him, "If you keep saying you're gay, someone is going to shoot you in the head" and ordered him not to say he was gay anymore or he would be killed. Then, a month later, he was given orders by the same supervisor that he would no longer be able to speak publicly 24 hours a day, seven days a week to any news outlets or organizations, nor would he be able to utilize his social media platforms to talk about his sexual orientation.

The district also demanded that Bigham bring all of his personal sealed outgoing mail to the school for them to read and approve or destroy. These orders continued through August of 2014 when a new set of rules were imposed on him including not meeting with or speaking to unapproved groups.

"I was supposed to meet with a local high school GSA to talk about suicide prevention that fall and they said no because meeting with those students had no value to the district," said Bigham. "I took a personal day and went, anyway. I also refused to comply by any of the district's other orders because they were illegal."

One of the ways Bigham defied their orders was during his White House visit on May 1, 2014.

"The White House honors are amazing. The press asked us if we wanted to make a statement. I was in the back of the group and said 'Pardon me ladies. I'm about to come out of the closet.' I stepped forward and talked to the press about the anti-LGBTQ laws that were passing across the country that are harming LGBTQ youth. I told them as a gay teacher I had to be their voice."

Bigham decided being openly gay was important because his best friend died by suicide shortly after coming out to him when they were teenagers. He knew a kid today would benefit from seeing another out LGBTQ teacher who was successful.

"I didn't have the kinds of experiences the other teachers who've been given these honors have had," said Bigham. "I'm kind of an anomaly since the other teachers had nothing but positive things to say about their administrators and schools. Every step of the way there was something looming over me that was going to punish me no matter what I did. It was a strange time."

Bigham worked the entire 2014-15 school year under constant threats and retaliation by his supervisor and, later, the superintendent. During that school year he filed three official state and federal complaints against them. Part of Bigham's complaint included the fact that his bosses' actions were putting his students in danger.

He was placed on administrative leave on March 20, 2015, and was fired on April 3, 2015, due to this complaint. Bigham's story became international news at this point so the district had to take him back, but they did everything in their power to get him to quit. He was going to file a lawsuit but the school district offered him a $160,000 settlement to resign.

In addition to Bigham taking the settlement, his supervisor and the superintendent were fired and the head of HR and legal counsel were forced to resign. Bigham had to promise not to come back and drop all of his complaints of discrimination and harassment. The district originally demanded a gag order which Bigham refused.

"My whole case was about them trying to control my speech," said Bigham. "They couldn't force my silence nor could they buy it."

Bigham has been a fighter his whole life. He was a military brat which meant his family moved a lot so he ended up going to 11 schools before he finished 8th grade.

"I was always the new kid and sometimes it would be in the middle of the school year," said Bigham. "I think that's partially why I've come out so strongly against bullying. At times, I was the kid who was bullied and other times I was friends with the kids who didn't have any other friends. I spent a lot of my childhood sticking up for really shy kids."

When Bigham's dad retired from the military due to medical issues they moved to his dad's small, religious hometown Canby, Oregon where he attended Canby High School. This was the first time Bigham had educational stability and a community. He also developed his skills as a writer while in high school.

Bigham went on to graduate from Oregon State University with a degree in speech communication. While in college, Bigham competed in speech and was on a speech scholarship for awhile.

"I didn't give another speech after I graduated until I received these awards," said Bigham. "Since then, I've given about 300 speeches."

After graduating, Bigham worked for a couple of magazines and segued into advertising writing.

"I realized that wasn't something I wanted to do and that's when I stumbled into teaching," said Bigham.

Bigham explained that he learned the skills necessary to be a special education teacher during his teen years. His older brother had behavior issues that needed to be managed at times. Bigham was the family member who was able to deescalate things with his brother and he took those skills to the classroom.

"The students I was getting had gone through the city's school system and had been at every school they could possibly be placed at so they sent them to me," said Bigham. "I got great results from my students and it makes me sad that I won't be able to help the most vulnerable students in Portland anymore due to my former supervisor's homophobia."

Although Bigham is taking some time off from teaching he hasn't stopped his activist work and will be appearing at three education events this summer.

Bigham will be participating in a session alongside Jane McMahon—2014 Wisconsin State Teacher of the Year and Shanna Peeples—2015 Texas State Teacher of the Year and 2015 United States National Teacher of the Year at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year ( NNSTOY ) Conference July 11-14 at the Loews Hotel in Rosemont, Illinois. He explained that their session on July 12 will be focusing on anti-bullying information and supports for LGBTQ youth who are being bullied. This conference marks the first time three openly gay teachers of the year will be holding a session together.

"We're going to tell our own stories but it will mostly be student focused," said Bigham. "It's kind of exciting to be doing this session. It will give three of the most highly recognized LGBTQ teachers in the country a chance to share the supports we think are necessary for every school in the country. It's actually closer to my heart to talk about bullying issues because it marries the two groups of people I love dearly and want to help—special education and LGBTQ students."

Bigham will also be speaking at the Save Our Schools Rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 8, when he'll tell his story and outline what's happening with LGBTQ teachers across the country. He's also slated to speak at Howard University July 9 alongside other teachers about fighting for their rights as educators. Bigham's focus will be on pushing for federal laws that protect teachers from being harassed due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

For more information on the NNSTOY conference, visit NNSTOY.org/national-conference-2016/ .


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