Here is my newest Ability Guidebook for the Mikkel Museum in Tallinn, Estonia! I am excited to offer these supports for people in Estonia who have autism. If you speak Estonian, I’d love to get them translated!
I’d like you to think of personal spaces for a moment. Think back to your first day in your new apartment, or the day you moved all your boxes into your first home. Remember that first drive in your new car or they day you moved into your dorm room at college. What is the first thing you did?
You personalized the space. Posters and mementos go up, art fills the walls, you labor over where the furniture goes and what kind of houseplants to get. Decorating does more than make a room beautiful, it gives you a feeling of home. It makes you invest in a space that the day before was alien to you.
Too many teachers forget that the classroom is home to students for a good portion of their waking hours. This empty, sterile room with uncomfortable seating and bright fluorescent lights is not home, yet your students are going to spend a good portion of the year looking at those four walls.
Most teachers put a lot of effort into getting their classrooms ready for their students. Throughout August my Facebook feed has been full of teachers sharing the hard work they have put in to creating amazing spaces for their kids. Part of me has a suspicion that some of my teacher friends are planning next year’s classroom before they’ve locked the doors in June.
I do things a bit differently. Often my students are dealing with emotional disturbances and they have not had good experiences in the school building. School is often not a happy place for them and not a place they feel ownership. That is why, in my classroom, the first day of school is all about decorating and snacks. Snacks because everyone likes snacks and decorating so the student feels like the space is theirs.
You can make a great bulletin board with Van Gogh prints but your classroom is chock full of Van Goghs. Not only do I cover the walls with student art I use them as a tool to build up my students. If a guest steps into my room I welcome them with, “Hello, just look at the amazing art the class created!” When the students leave my goodbye is, “I sure like that horse you drew!”
And that same art is how I start the next day. My greeting is all about the art. “We had the best day yesterday! That painting you did is amazing.” One drawing can generate days worth of praise because art is art. No matter what they have created it is success at school.
And that same art begins to create relationships around the school. “I was in the principal’s office and it is pretty sad…let’s take him one of our paintings!” It is not half-hazard. My kids need relationships in the library, the office, the cafeteria and so the students create for those spaces as well.
Every person feels more connected when they have had a hand in decorating and creating their own space. Pride is not always an easy feeling to create in a student but I use art to let them create it themselves.
It is always a great day when I get a new Ability Guidebook done but today is special since it is in a new country! Introducing: I Am Going To The Kadriorg Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia!!
If you know anyone who speaks Estonian, send them my way!
When you get to meet your hero…
This has been a summer to remember. I thought, when I spoke at the Lincoln Memorial for Save Our Schools, that not much could top a day like that. Following Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol and speaking before Reverend William Barber made for a day filled with people who I consider heroes. I honestly did not think I could top that highpoint and I still shake my head in disbelief that I was in that line up.
I know I stood up for my students, but I’m a nobody. I didn’t change the world or change a policy…I just stood up for my kids and myself. I could make a list of teachers who have done as much and more than I have ever even considered. If I made a list of the top 100 teachers I know I wouldn’t even make the list.
But following the Lincoln Memorial came an invitation from Dr Stephen Hawking to meet at Cambridge University. For a special education teacher there simply are no people I can think of who are more inspiring. He is everything that I fight for. He is proof that students like mine have something to say. He is proof that we need to fund the programs that will allow our students to speak and share what is inside of them. He shows us that with wheelchair accessible curbs and support our people with mobility issues can get out and contribute. He is a voice for so many who cannot talk and whose communities don’t invest in giving them a voice.
And he is a brave and fearless man who has looked difficulty and a gut-wrenching future in the face and said, “bring it.” How many of us have the strength to fight like that? Who of us could write five books using a cheek muscle to scroll, one letter at a time, to make sure the world learns what is inside our head? Who of us has that grit and determination make the UNIVERSE a better place?
For me, this basement-room special education teacher who has been thrust into national headlines, I find myself smaller and smaller as each day goes by. I see the options I have to step out and make the world a better place and with each opportunity to make change I see that in the big picture I’m small. I’m tiny. I’m just a guy who fought back but with each realization that the changes I’m making are small, it gives me place in the world. Those are my changes. That was my step forward in the march towards civil rights and equality. That little flicker of hope I gave people is the light that I own and I will take pride in knowing that I have made a difference. But there are true heroes in the world. Men and women who change perception and fight a harder fight. I cannot be compared to those people nor do I wish to be.
I’m a teacher. I inspire my students. Some of us have a broader canvas but we all are doing the same thing. Teaching. Inspiring every day. Standing up for our students and doing our best to make this world a better world.
And sometimes we are rewarded and meet a true hero. Work hard teachers. Inspire those kids you so lovingly guard. One of them may end up being the hero we all wish we could be.
If you have attended one of my conference sessions the handouts you are here!
GLSEN offers a wide variety of supports for both teachers and students to combat bullying. This includes the latest in LGBTQ student research, professional development for teachers and staff, curriculum, support programs and both classroom and school-wide activities.
Curriculum Supports Include:
Ready, Set, Respect! Elementary Toolkit ThinkB4YouSpeak Guide for Educators No Name-Calling Week (all grades) Unheard Voices
LGBT Pride Month Guide for Educators Celebrate NEA’s Read Across America
Teacher Resources at GLSEN include: School Climate and HIV Risk
Get the Facts: Realities of LGBT Students Libraries as Safe Spaces
Working with LGBT Students of Color Ally Week Guide for Educators
Day of Silence Guide for Educators Game Plan: PE Teachers, Coaches Safe Space Kit
CLUBFUNDER is a national organization that offers funding to Gay Straight Alliance clubs in the form of mini-grants.
Oregon Safe Schools Community Coalition publishes the yearly State of the Safe Schools Act Report. The Safe Schools Act, passed in Oregon, is one of the most advanced anti-bullying laws in the country. Oregon Safe Schools provides information and links to support anti-bullying measures.
The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention supports for youth and educators and a suicide hotline.
Lifeguard Workshop Learning Module Trevor CARE Training for Educators Trevor Ally Training for Educators Model of School District Policy and Webinar of Model Policy
Trevor Space (online social community)
Welcoming Schools provides curriculum, book lists, lesson plans, supports for LGBTQ students with Trans Gender issues carefully covered. .
2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year
2015 NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence
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.
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.
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
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:
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and was awarded an NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence in 2015.
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.
2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year
2015 NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence