Standing in the shadows of giants. My thoughts on speaking at the Lincoln Memorial

I do not take my rights of free speech for granted. I realize, probably more than most, how dear those rights are and how desperate some are to steal them away. In 2014 I was named Oregon’s Teacher of the Year. Not only was I the first special education teacher to win this award, it also meant I became one of only a handful of openly gay educators to be recognized on the national level.

I thought this would be a chance to support LGBTQ kids in a unique way but my district had different ideas. I was ordered not to say I was gay in public, ordered not to meet with gay high school students because “meeting with those students has no value to the district” and I was ordered that all speech had to be approved in advance, all writing would be submitted to the district for approval and I must bring personal mail from home to be opened and read. I refused and I was bullied, harassed, blackmailed, fired and then dragged through the gutter by a district bent on destroying a gay teacher that dared to stand up to them.

IMG_0694     On May 1, 2014 I was honored with 52 other Teachers of the Year at the Whitehouse by President Obama. I was under an order that if I said I was gay I would be fired. Following the ceremony the International Press Corps asked the teachers if they would like to make a statement. I stood there in despair. To say nothing meant i could keep my job. To stand up meant I was declaring war. To say nothing meant turning my back on LGBTQ youth. I stepped to the microphone and started swinging. I chose to go to war against a deep-pocketed district with no moral compass and a history of crushing anyone who even remotely stood up to them.

Instead of being crushed I fought like a bear. The Union charged in the fight behind me and outmaneuvered my district’s three sets of lawyers. When the district said I could not meet with the Gay Straight Alliance I took a personal day and went. When they told me I could not submit an essay to Kevin Jennings for his book “One In Ten Teachers in the New Millennium” I sent it anyway. I refused to submit and filed state and federal complaints.

And when I was put on leave and fired it became clear that everything was worth it.

You see, I had a reason for being out. When I was fifteen my best friend told me he was done with girls, knew they weren’t for him, went home, and killed himself. My best friend was so frightened to be gay that he thought a shotgun in his mouth was a better alternative. An openly gay Teacher of the Year would send a big message to young people like my friend. I knew I could save some lives. But only if I was out and my district was trying to stop that.

When I was put on leave my story went around the globe. And on a day when I should have been feeling pretty miserable I saw the Nigeria Times. In Nigeria they are executing gay people but on that day the Nigeria Times had a picture of my husband and I riding in the Rose Festival Parade—the first gay couple to do so. They also had a photo of us in suits at the Capitol Building following a meeting with Senator Merkley and Senator Wyden. It was miscaptioned as our wedding, but the message was clear to every gay person or their allies in Nigeria that day. There is reason to hope and a place where gay people are accepted and celebrated.

The story ran around Africa, Singapore, Europe, the US and was even picked up by Russian Radio. I say it was all worth it because how could one gay teacher ever, EVER hope to have such an impact? Every gay person who saw my story saw that someone was fighting really hard for gay youth. They saw, that as my district said “meeting with those students has no value to the district,” that I was making sure that those kids saw they were worth EVERYTHING. Even when the district fired the superintendent and offered me a settlement with a gag order, I told them they would never control a single world out of my mouth and fought on.

In my wake I left a fired superintendent, the head of HR and legal council forced out (“bought off” as a board member described it to me), the head of special education reprimanded and demoted, the head of my department reprimanded with hours cut, my supervisor fired and two more supervisors reprimanded and my district now has four new school board members since my firing. The state investigation showed substantial bullying, harassment and my firing violated state and federal labor laws. The district also attempted what I call blackmail but the real legal term is “coercion of a state employee” when they, in writing, told the union they would let me go to Washington DC to pick up a national teaching award if I took back my state and federal complaints against them.

And each step of the way a new friend stepped forward. The Bad Ass Teachers Association called my district en masse and stopped the board meeting where I was to be fired a second time. The same week I was fired the NEA LGBTQ Caucus gave me their “Teacher Role Model” award. Leaving my class broke my heart, these friends who stood behind me did a lot to heal that break.

I shake my head in wonder how in two years a man can go from a nobody teacher in a basement special ed classroom, to Teacher of the Year honored at the Whitehouse to being fired, unfired, dragged through the mud and a media firestorm only to come out of it only slightly bruised standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

This Friday I will be standing in the shadows of giants as I give a speech for the rights of LGBTQ youth and teachers at the Lincoln Memorial at the Save Our Schools Rally. I am humbled and honored to speak in such an honored place of this.

And as I stand on those hallowed steps where others have spoken of their dreams, I will be awed by the crowd and the place and the moment. And then I will step up to the microphone and do what I have been doing all along. I’m going to show LGBTQ youth that they need to hang in there and keep fighting. They are not alone! They have a future! They can be a teacher. They can be a Teacher of the Year or they can just be.

Brett Bigham
2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year
2015 NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence
2015 NEA Global Fellow
2015 NEA LGBTQ Caucus Teacher Role Model Award
2013 NASET Outstanding Special Education Teacher of the Year
Husband 😉

I Am Going to the Renwick Gallery! A new Ability Guidebook for people with autism.

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It is always an awesome day when I get another Ability Guidebook finished! This February I was in Washington, D.C. to attend the NEA Foundation Gala and took the opportunity to get pictures for several books.

Many thanks to Precious Crabtree and Kristen Record. The three of us were NEA Global Fellows together in Peru and this is not the first time I’ve dragged poor Kristen off to pose for a book.

In July I have the honor of speaking at the Lincoln Memorial during the Save Our Schools rally and march and in 2017 the NNSTOY conference will be in Washington.  It is my hope by the end of these visits that I will be able to do books for all of the Smithsonian Museums!

I lament that the West Coast does not have a Smithsonian Museum, in fact, more than lament it, I protest it! The National Mall offers free museums for Native American History, African American History, the Holocaust Museum, that National Gallery and more… all free to all comers.  But all those free museums are lumped in a few acres  almost 3000 miles away from Portland.  As much as I’d like to make books for, say, the Smithsonian Museum of Northwest Culture in Portland, Oregon, I’ll hope that day comes some day and in the meantime I will create books for the Smithsonian Museums we do have.

So, without further ado:

Ability Guidebook_ I Am Going To The Renwick Gallery

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and was awarded an NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015.

Explore Rome and Visit the Macuteo Obelisk! A New Ability Guidebook!

MacuteoAD

Ability Guidebook_ I Am Going To The Macuteo Obelisk

It is always fun when I get a new Ability Guidebook finished! I am inspired because I have had a volunteer step forward to translate the books into Italian!  You cannot Imagine how exciting it was to get that email!  I am writing these books for Italy knowing that only a few English speaking tourists might ever need them.

But I knew that once the books were in English, if I could find someone to translate, they could then be a valuable tool for people with autism who live in, or who are visiting Rome.

My hope is that I will inspire some people in Italy to step forward and make some books of their own! Even now my friend Bill Pierce is visiting Vienna taking pictures to create some additional Ability Guidebooks. Some of Sam Sennott’s students at Portland State University chose to make a book instead of doing a final paper. These are more awesome people stepping up to help create a permanant library of supports for people with autism! (And a support for teachers who are taking their younger students on field trips to these important cultural destinations).  I am thrilled to have Bill join me in this project and the students of PSU as well!

If anyone has decent pictures of the Vatican Museum entry I sure could use them….mine turned out pretty poorly.

Brett Bigham

2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year

2015 NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence

I Am Going To The Rose Festival!

Three years ago I contacted the Rose Festival to suggest to them that they create some events that were more accessible to people with special needs. Because I work so much with people with autism I knew that there were quite a few people who were never able to visit Cityfair at Waterfront Park.  With the combinations of crowds, noise, music and carnival rides it was more than some of my students could handle.

Rose Festival Ad

The Rose Festival has been awesome and for three years they have opened early one day during the weekend and allowed visitors free entry to the Walk on the Wild Side Animal Safari and the Kidzone.  This finally allowed people with sensory issues a chance to visit the lions, skunks, lizards and snakes without any noise or crowds.  I never dreamed the Rose Festival would be so amazing and every year is better.  This year they are doubling the amount of time for the special needs day.

June 3 from 9-11 there is free entry to Cityfair for people with special needs and their families.  Come see the animals and then walk around the carnival area. At eleven the rides will start running so maybe you can stay and try a ride or two!!

Below is a link to an Ablity Guidebook on how to attend the event.  Print it out or pull it up on your phone. We look forward to seeing you at the animal safari!

I Am Going To The Rose Festival

I Am Going UP on the Portland Aerial Tram! Ability Guidebook

I’m thrilled to be able to start posting the original sets of Ability Guidebooks focused on my home city of Portland. This was the beginning of the whole project and where they saw their first amazing successes helping people who had difficulties getting out into public.

tramUPAD

I have partnered up with Portland State University to have students make more books for our community.  I’ll be sure to let you know when the student written books are up online!

But for today, I’m proud to say, we are going UP on the Portland Aerial Tram!

I Am Going Up On The Portland Aerial Tram!

It’s Time To Visit The Supreme Court!

supremecourtpicThis book is all about perseverance! In 2014 Mike and I were in D.C. for the White House Honoring Ceremony.  It was an amazing week and we took every spare minute to meet with elected officials during the visit. We had a few minutes in between meeting Senator Merkley and Senator Baldwin and we decided we had time to make a book!

It was pouring down rain as we ran from the Hart Senate Building to the Supreme Court. There was over four inches of standing water in the street!  We splashed through, raced into the Supreme Court and quickly squished our way throught the building taking pictures as fast as I could.

Needless to say, the pictures turned out pretty terrible and I didn’t have the shots I needed to make a book.

Nine months later I was awarded the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence and Mike and I found ourselves back in D.C.  I had my chance to get those pictures I needed to complete a Supreme Court Ability Guidebook! Again, the weather was none to cooperative. February snows kept us from our photo mission.

Last October I had the honor of being part of Kevin Jennings book tour for his book “One Teacher In Ten In the New Millennium.” He had accepted my essay “Teacher of the Year” for publication and I was able to travel to D.C. and L.A. for book readings. During that trip I was finally able to get the last pictures I needed at the Supreme Court.

So, finally, at last, with great happiness I present

Ability Guidebook I Am Going To The Supreme Court