Brett Bigham was named Oregon State Teacher of the Year in 2014, National Education Association Foundation fellow in 2015 and 2018 and he even received White House Honors from President Obama. This was a huge and momentous time in Bigham’s life, a time to celebrate, a time to plan for the future. What Bigham didn’t expect was how this was also about to become a time of huge adversity.
Soon after receiving his award, Bigham’s supervisor ordered him to remain quiet about his sexual orientation when in public. But too much was at stake, and he couldn’t remain silent.
The Teacher of the Year award put Bigham in a position to speak up, to speak out, to be a person of inspiration and promise – which is just what he did, despite knowing his job was on the line. “I knew an openly gay Teacher of the Year would save lives. When I received White House Honors from President Obama I was interviewed by the White House International Press Corp and spoke out for the rights of the LGBT youth.”
Following the publication of his wedding pictures by the Oregonian website, and later being the first gay couple honored by the Rose Festival, Bigham was fired. “But my fight to get my job [back] made international news and my victory in the end showed LGBT youth that they had a champion.”
The commitment to helping LGBT youth emerged out of Bigham’s own experience in high school when his best friend came out to him, only to commit suicide a few days later. Such an experience changes a person forever, and Bigham knew he must do whatever he could to help prevent anything like this from happening again.
Becoming a teacher, inspiring his students and leading them toward acceptance was what he needed to do, saying, “Acceptance of themselves and others and caring for the environment. So many of the problems our young people face stem from not being accepted.”
Once being named teacher of the year, Bigham looked at his position within the classroom and within his community more carefully. “I realize there is truly no bounds to where my work can take me, and how my work can make changes in ways I never dreamed,” he says. Bigham traveled to Bangladesh in order to become a mentor to teachers who have never had one before. He founded #GlobalSPED on Twitter, an international forum for special education teachers to interact and connect with each other in ways they couldn’t before.
Bigham says, “My awards gave me the platform to pull these people together.” And yet, bringing people together, spreading awareness, promoting acceptance began well before he was named teacher of the year.
As a special education teacher for much of his career, Bigham saw the kids in his classroom with severe disabilities needing an ally. “They are the kids who I wanted to stand up for because nobody else was doing it… They win because they have a champion.”
This was his gift. He saw himself as someone who could open the doors for those who previously only saw closed doors. “It is as if every skill I have has blended into this new role of education leader that I have become.”
Bigham started at community college, and during his sophomore year decided to enroll at Oregon State. He had friends at many different universities, but it was seeing those becoming actively involved in the school, and caring about their education and the community that drove him to Oregon State.
A professor in the theater department gave Bigham his first experience teaching, and it ended up being an experience which changed his life and steered the course of his entire career. Looking back at his time at Oregon State first as a journalism student, and now as a Teacher of the Year, he jokes, “Little did I know that I would give up writing to become a teacher, and that by being named Teacher of the Year, I would suddenly be writing more speeches and articles than ever before.”
In hindsight, Bigham says, “Do not wait for ten years to get woke or else you will find yourself looking deep inside with the worry that you did not do right by those brown and black kids who thought the world of you.” Bigham continues, “You have to step into your first classroom knowing those kids need something different from you and you had better know what it is.”
If he can give one piece of advice to a new teacher it is to learn, to adjust, to be flexible, and to find the best mentor in the building. Bigham stresses, “Trust me when I say that relationship will be one of the most important ones in your entire life.”
As Bigham has exemplified, being inspired and being an inspiration changes lives.