My short bio: Hello, my name is Brett Bigham and I am the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and the 2015 Oregon Education Association's Teacher of Excellence. I am the first special education teacher to win either of those awards. I am also one of only a couple of gay educators to be named teacher of the year. :)

Soon after I was ordered not to say I was gay in public. When I refused I was given orders that I was not allowed to write or speak publicly unless my district approved in advance. I was told I was not allowed to speak to the local gay student alliance because "those students have no value to the district."
I filed complaints and they fired me in violation of the law. The state investigated and the superintendent was fired, head of HR forced out, three new school board members were elected and my supervisors and their supervisor were all demoted. The wikipedia entry under my name has most of the story.

My Proof:

Comments: 136 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

agwe73 karma

Do you think denver should play it out with peyton manning or give brock osweiler a chance in the divisional round?

TeachOfTheYear66 karma

Is that a hockey question? I think you are on the wrong AMA

TeachOfTheYear61 karma

(that was a joke)

cuore_di_metallo39 karma

It seems like it would be the most challenging group of kids to work with, so I'm curious, what drew you to teaching kids with special needs?

TeachOfTheYear36 karma

Hello! Thank you for the question! With everything that went on people don't ask about my students enough! I was working at county level special ed, so the students that come to use often have pretty severe disabilities.

I got started when I applied to substitute during a teacher shortage. Within a couple of months I was given my first class. I loved it, went back to school for masters and then jumped in.

Who-the-fuck-is-that34 karma

Burned by the AutoModerator...

FYI You should include better proof than that. Anybody can post a Wikipedia link. Just throwing that out there.

TeachOfTheYear30 karma

i just put a link to a tweet about this AMA for further proof. Thanks!

Frajer30 karma

what kind of legal protection did you have?

TeachOfTheYear63 karma

In Oregon we have laws against discriminating against people based on their sexuality. But even with those, it was obviously not enough.

The Teachers Union provided legal assistance and a terrific lawyer and my uniserv from the Union fought like a tiger for me. I also got my own lawyer eventually and when the district put me on leave I started a gofundme to cover the costs of filing the federal case and depositions. The public was incredible!

creepy_doll84 karma

Some people love to vilify unions, but this is exactly what they're there for. Happy to hear you got some semblance of justice.

The world is pretty slow to change, but it's happening

TeachOfTheYear52 karma

The union put up one incredible fight for me. The district wont say how much they spent in funding two (failed) investigations, firing the superintendent with a pay off, getting rid of the HR Director and Lawyer and paying that off too and paying two outside law firms to fight me.

I never could have fought them and won without the union.

Caleb_Perkins19 karma

Does being made teacher of the year mean that you will get paid more?

TeachOfTheYear55 karma

Lol! NO! In fact, being teacher of the year is expensive! I didn't even own a suit when I won so I had to pony up and get business clothes, etc. Our 1996 Explorer also couldn't take the mileage and had to be replaced (The seat broke off as I was driving home from a speaking engagement in Salem and I found myself basically laying in the back seat!). I also sent a thank you for every event and meeting. I stopped counting at 300. That's a lot of stamps!

Every state has different awards--mine came with a nice cash prize that I shared with my educations assistants. (who are awesome, by the way!)

Caleb_Perkins21 karma

Wow, dude. I really think great teachers like you should be paid more, or else America's education system won't ever improve. I can't stress this enough: You are doing a great service to our kids! I'm really glad you have great assistants, too. Thanks for answering my question and have a great day!

TeachOfTheYear13 karma

Thank you so much! My assistants were actually the BEST teachers I've ever had. They are the reason I was recognized and I try to make sure everyone knows that a team won the award.

I agree with teacher pay. I was making 45K but after taxes and students loans it was pretty tight. If I worked in business and was recognized like this I'd probably be making a fortune!

TheTallestOfTopHats-8 karma

Its largely the Teacher's union that refuses to allow schools to increase pay based on merit.

Just sayin'

Also you appear to be awesome, keep being awesome

TeachOfTheYear33 karma

Merit pay is a difficult subject since there is no data across the board that you can average out to find a mean. You might be a terrible teacher with a really kind supervisor who only gives positive marks, or you could have a really difficult supervisor who could give low marks to everyone. Student test scores also do not work since we know kids who live in poverty perform lower and any teacher with students with special needs would be heavily at a disadvantage. If you use test scores, how do you figure out the merit score for a music teacher or a PE teacher.

The PE teacher might be incredible and have 100% of their students passing their goals, but if the kid does poorly on their math test should the PE teacher gets evaluated by those scores? And, a teacher only has a kid for nine months. If the student is behind when they get there, then the scores will be low and the new teacher is marked down for deficits in scores. If a student came to you two years behind, and you taught them a years worth they are still behind when they take their tests.

As a special ed teacher my students test scores would make me a failing teacher.

I'm not saying merit pay can't be part of the picture, but how do you compare the performance of a teacher with 38 kids and no funding to a charter school teacher who has 18 students and all the resources money can buy. You can't base my income on how my students do on a test compared to the teacher down the hall teaching an honors class.

The other option is bonus pay for great results. But, again, how do we average that out so it is fair to every teacher?

And thank you for the compliment :0)

Johnnyfiftyfive15 karma

Have you had much physical or verbal backlash? pitch forked groups parading around ?

TeachOfTheYear31 karma

No! In fact, I get stopped all the time--people wanting to apologize for how I was treated or to give me a thumbs up.

BUT, I didn't read a lot of the news (there were so many articles it was kind of horrifying) and I never allowed myself to read the comments. The Oregonian doesn't monitor their comments so they can be pretty harsh. You could run an article about kittens and it would get negative comments.

My community has been warm and supportive to me.

Johnnyfiftyfive6 karma

Great !

People on the internet are dicks, or assholes, some of them are even pussies. Face to face is different than spouting shit on a comment stream.

Glad to know you are welcomed.

TeachOfTheYear22 karma

My husband and I were in the Rose Festival Parade here in Portland--we were the first gay couple to ever ride in the parade and every couple of blocks they would reannounce on big speakers that I was the teacher of the year and riding with me was my husband. For four hours and 400,000 people we got to watch the audience as they processed what they had just heard. And not once did we see a single negative reaction. Some shocked people and some people who kind of froze mid clap. But nothing negative. In fact, our driver told us that he had been driving in the parade for almost a decade and that he had never heard a bigger response from the crowd.

My city was freaking awesome in how they treated us!

Slammasam28 karma

Firstly, I'm very sorry this happened, it's really a shame. However, I'm wondering why in such a liberal state like Oregon they would ask you not to publicly announce it. What was their reasoning?

TeachOfTheYear20 karma

One person started all my issues--and told the communications director that me saying I was gay was going to bring shame to the district. She told me, "If you keep saying you are gay, someone is going to shoot you in the head."

The people under her then began going after me--ordering me to bring them coffee, handing me a dirty tissue and telling me to put it in the garbage when she was sitting next to the garbage. Once it went to that level the district decided going after me for whistleblowing was easier than firing administrators.

Slammasam212 karma

Jeeeeez, man. That's literally some Mean Girls shit right there. You'll find a better place for yourself away from those people regardless of how amazing of a teacher you were for those kids. Good luck man, we're all rooting for you!

TeachOfTheYear6 karma

!!! Thank you!

BadAtSport8 karma

Did this change your opinion of unions? Are teachers heavily unionised so you auto-signed up when you became a teacher or is it a decision you made especially?

I'm from Australia and my dad's a teacher (and proud unionist) but intrigued as to your experience.

TeachOfTheYear16 karma

Hello Australia! It's funny because I grew up in a family that wasn't too keen on the Union and for many years I was a fair share member. But twice now the Union has stepped in on my behalf and come to my rescue. Had I not joined the union this probaby would have ruined me. Hello to your dad! Tell him to check out "Teachers Leading Going Global" on Facebook. It is an offshoot of the Teacher of the Year group and focuses on projects linking students around the globe and some really fun stuff like that. He might love it!

xanxer6 karma

Were you able to find a new teaching job afterwards?

TeachOfTheYear12 karma

I was warned by quite a few people that no superintendent would want to hire a teacher who is willing to take on a superintendent. It makes sense but I hope its not true!

the-tinman5 karma

So, What is next? Are you trying for a new teaching job?

TeachOfTheYear10 karma

I took the Fall off to work on a couple of curriculum books and to give myself a chance to breath. I'm just starting the job search now. I had been warned going public would blacklist me so I guess I will see!

TeachOfTheYear6 karma

I have also been traveling quite a bit. In June I went to Peru as a Global Fellow from the NEA and I went to Europe for a Honeymoom and took the opportunity to visit schools and meet teachers. I shared that with Teachers Leading.

stankywank5 karma

As someone who is bisexual your story really speaks to me. Thank you for standing up for your rights and in turn the rights of all people in the LGBTQ community!

My question: What can we do to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again?

TeachOfTheYear11 karma

Thank you! Sadly, since my firing, there have been several more gay teachers fired in the press. The difference though was I was a sitting Teacher of Excellence for the Union and the TOY for the state.

But for everything bad that happened, something awesome happened. When I was put on leave it made international news. When is the last time a person in Nigeria looked at the news and saw a story about a gay teacher that showed pictures of him in a parade and at his wedding? (thought that picture was actually of us at the capitol building after meeting with Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley-they mislabeled the photo).

The solution to this is adding sexuality to the Civil Rights Act. I was shocked when the Dept. of Justice would not look into the allegations I made that my student's rights were being violated by the way the district was behaving. I was told, because the district's behavior was tied to my whistleblowing over my sexuality, that the Dept. of Justice could not look into it. I was shocked. My students were not protected because I was gay!

stankywank3 karma

That's really horrible. When I make statements like "Our country needs to get its priorities straight," I usually get a lot of bite back by people who tell me that the United States is great and that I'll get a lot more freedom here than in other countries.

This is partially true, but what I usually retort with is that there's no reason for our country to stop in its tracks now. Just because we have it good doesn't mean we can't have it better, and I think that's what scares a lot of people into not advocating for gay rights and the like.

They see that our country is well off compared to others and they think that we can't go any further, but we can! I hope that in your position you keep pushing to achieve the goal of equality for all, and I'll try to do the same! Good luck to you, and again, thank you so much! You're doing more for the LGBTQ community than probably even you know!

TeachOfTheYear3 karma

Thank you very much! At a meeting with a Gay Student Alliance a student came up and told me she felt like what I had done, I did for her... and it made her feel important.

I just teared up sharing that--but her saying that made it all worthwhile.

zaqwsx34 karma

Did you try to fight the settlement agreement to allow you to work for MESD again, or did you conclude it was a dead end?

TeachOfTheYear15 karma

I knew it was a dead end. The district hired an investigator to look into things but when I saw the report it was clear that the was going to be dishonest. My supervisor had demanded I have students clean her office but there was wine kept in the room (the supervisor was having a "wine-of-the-month" delivered to the building which was on the shelf. I complained and was told it didn't matter if my students were around wine because they couldn't read the box it was in. I was also called a liar in the report because i referred to the wine as "liquor". The report pointed out wine is not considered liquor and then demanded that I go to counseling for lying about it.

So, I knew there was no going back. That is why I put up with it for ten months before I filed my complaints. I was just trying to finish the year.

gdq03 karma

My supervisor had demanded I have students clean her office

Doesn't Oregon have child labor laws?

TeachOfTheYear8 karma

It would be a "student job". We were a program training kids for employment but I was not comfortable with this particular situation.

Tojin4 karma

Are you currently seeing anyone? ;)

More seriously, did you teach anything besides Special Education, and if so, what?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

Properly married here and just returned from my honeymoon.

When I subbed I taught all subjects and quite often longer sub positions. But my degree is in special education and I love it. give me an angry kid and I'll have him laughing in ten minutes. :0)


Do you think that having more openly gay teachers would help kids who are gay?

What was meeting Obama like, what is a photo opportunity for him or did you discuss issues relating to your case?

Do you think this could effect your career in the long run?

TeachOfTheYear8 karma

Yes! If you go to the website for Clubfunder , a group that supports and funds GSAs and GSA events (I am on their board of directors) they have links to a study that shows a GSA in a school lowers suicide risk.

Oddly though, in my case, I never came out to my class and never discussed this with students. My district didn't want me telling other adults, even on a weekend or my own time, that i was gay!

President Obama was very charming but he hit me with a question about the Trailblazers that threw me for a loop! (Kind of like the hockey question up above). What was most touching though was the President and Mrs. Obama sent Mike and I a personal letter when we got married and they congratulated us. It is a treasured possession now! If you google my name the picture of the two of us pops right up.

I think it has changed my trajectory somewhat but I am sure I will keep on teaching. When you have a job that you like and doesn't feel like work, that's a mighty good profession!

Caleb_Perkins3 karma

Just one more question: Have you ever met any religious people who supported you in your fight against discrimination even if they didn't think being gay was moral? Or were the people you met just black and white in their support or opposition of the discrimination you faced?

TeachOfTheYear7 karma

Great question! Caleb, I did a lot of speaking around that state and I met a lot of people. I met a lot of parents with gay kids and in those remote parts of the state I saw some real pain in those eyes and the comments I heard were that those parents were seeing a future for their gay kids in my being teacher of the year. These families out in the rural parts of our country don't have the same supports and I think some of those moms and dads were relieved to see that a gay person can be embraced by their community.

I have also been blessed with so many friends and strangers who have told me they are praying for me. I hope that I have opened some doors and some started some conversations.

And that is more than I could have asked for.

And please know, my situation occored because one person did some anti-gay stuff and instead of dealing with it openly and honestly, the district chose to try to squeeze me out instead of fixing the issues. One person started it, but the dishonesty in the cover-up was mind-boggling. But that too is a lesson to learn: you don't cover it up, you deal with it.

ShellyMarsh3 karma

I'm late to the game here, but I'm so happy to see you here on reddit and loved hearing you speak at WOU!

You've told this before, but how exactly did you get into teaching? It was an incredible story, I wish I could remember the details!

TeachOfTheYear7 karma

Hello! Thank you very much. Speaking to future teachers is one of my favorite things to do!

As a kid I had a family member who had bevior issues and I learned how to read him and try to manage his behavior by learning his triggers and deescalation techniques. I was young but I spent a childhood being that goofy kid that could make you laugh even if you were furious.

I started as a sub and after a few months was given a behavior classroom as my first teaching gig. (I had a degree in speech and no teaching experience!) Because I was so good at deescalation I was able to bring that to the classroom and suddenly these kids who had been such trouble, were suddenly succeeding and doing awesome.

So the behavior disappeared and what emerged were these really cool kids who just needed me to teach them how to chill themslves out.

I saw on facebook that two of my kids from that very classroom had grown up and graduated. When I took that job it was clear that the entire school had written them off but I know at least two of them were able to get back into regular education and graduate.

Maybe I'll see you at WOU again!

TheTallestOfTopHats2 karma

Wait, so did you get re-hired? If so that is awesome.

TeachOfTheYear6 karma

Yes! They violated so many labor laws to fire me that it was shocking. The union lawyer and my lawyer basically chewed them up, spit them out and stomped them into the ground that week. We filed to be heard by the labor board and the district reinstated me immediately. But, then they announced I would be fired at the next board meeting.

TheTallestOfTopHats1 karma

Stay classy, America's public schools.

What do you think could be done to improve public schools? What do you think about Sweden's approach: a voucher system?

TeachOfTheYear5 karma

I'm not familiar with Sweden's approach.

I do know that those countries with very good systems have decent funding and small class sizes. I always say "do the math". 1 teacher and 30 students means 2 minutes per student if nothing happens that causes the teacher st pause. (a phone call, a sick kid, behavior issues, etc.) I know of one kindergarten class in Oregon last year that had 45 kids in it with a first year teacher! If we don't fund education, then we get the results we pay for. I appreciate your comments-I'll check out the Swedish model.

blackjackandcoke882 karma

Congratulations on your awards and your justice! How the hell were the able to get with what they did to your students though and is there any way that you can get them back?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

Hello. Thank you--I appreciate the kind words. As part of the settlement I had to resign my position so I won't be able to teach this group again. However, I am in touch with some of their families and am at their service any time they need me.

ThreadWitch2 karma

Now see, as a first year teacher, this is the stuff that scares me a little. There is way too much politics to teaching!

That being said, do you have any advice of any kind for a first year teacher?

There is so much negativity at the school I got hired at this year, it's pretty discouraging.

TeachOfTheYear6 karma

Hello! Do you have a mentor teacher? NNSTOY did a survey on what makes a great teacher and one of the best things we can do to support new teachers is assign them a mentor. Don't be discouraged! The first couple of years are difficult because you have to look up everything, filling out forms those first years is awful, and it takes a little while to get really great at classroom management. But I promise, in a year or two, the things that seem so overwhelming to you now will become much easier when you know how to do them and have done them enough to sail through them. Your mentor teacher will already know all the tricks and they will share them with you.

Don't be afraid to go ask a co-worker that you admire, to give you tips or to share a project. If you team up with another really good teacher, then you can also be observing them to see how they manage different things.

Free stuff online is a lifesaver! Teacherspayteachers is a great website where teacher sell curriculum they have made but to be on the site you have to offer free items as well. Full disclosure: I sell curriculum on there but I always have a lot of free stuff. The NEA also has a website (greater public schools) that has free curriculum.

When i talk to special ed student teachers I always remind them that their assistant in the classroom (I had six!) will have more experience and more knowledge than you have and you should look at them as equals and teachers. A good assistant will teach YOU how to be a better teacher if you listen to them!

Teachers Leading and Teachers Leading Going Global on facebook are two great places to get ideas and projects--including some really awesome international learning ideas. (Another full disclosure: I make posts for them but even fuller disclosure--the teachers involved in Teachers Leading are jaw-droppingly amazing. They make me feel like a caveman sometimes!

marcxvi2 karma

No pic of you on wiki, Brett?

TeachOfTheYear2 karma

Oh yeah--i guess i should offer them one? Not quite sure how that works. I have a Chinese wikipedia page that I can't even read. I guess I should send them one too.

Roach27912 karma

What are you going to do for work now?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

I still hope to teach--it is the perfect job for me. But once you win these awards it does open up other venues. I am continuously being requested to go speak or attend meetings and events. So I figure my future will be a combination that allows me to teach but still have a voice in that bigger picture.

CorsarioNero2 karma

Have you been approached by movie studios / book publishers for the rights to your story?

TeachOfTheYear3 karma

I wish! I did write an essay for Kevin Jenning's anthology "One Teacher in Ten in the new Millennium" that came out in Sept. I was able to go to book readings in D.C. and L.A. and it was fun to experience something so far out of the norm for a teacher.

The essay, "Teacher of the Year", drew a comparison between the community and my district's reactions. I wrote it when I was still under the order not to say I was gay but I refused to allow them to rob me of the chance to publish.

NicolasMage692 karma

How was the legal battle with the school administration? From what I hear, a lot of cases are horrible uphill battles that drag on forever.

TeachOfTheYear10 karma

That battle was horrible. So much dishonesty, but I had saved every scrap of paper and note so everytime they tried the "I don't know what he's talking about" I had a paper trail.

At every step my district had a chance to stop and take the right path but they didn't. And once they fired me it pretty much sealed the deal--it was illegal they had to hire me back a few weeks later.

MulliganTv2 karma

Have you seen "Chef"?

TeachOfTheYear5 karma

I have not. I have seen many chefs, however.

WhereTheSpiritsFly1 karma

I am sorry that this happened to you, but glad that justice was served! I still can't understand how there could be so many ignorant people in the world, its 2016 for crying out loud! My question to you is, Having suffered at the hands of the cruel, could you ever forgive those that betrayed you?

TeachOfTheYear4 karma

well, in sept the district took my staff and sent them all to new classrooms and brought in a new teacher. My poor students (some with autism) returned to school to their staff gone and no explanation. It is because their actions hurt my students that it is hard to forgive. Especially when I hear that the kids seem very sad in their new situation.

But I try to look at the positive. In July I was given the NEA LGBT Teacher Role Model Award. I was honored for putting my students first in a terrible situation.

So, it is what it is my friend.

[deleted]-2 karma


TeachOfTheYear2 karma

THe district began putting my students at risk and you can't just quit and walk away when you are the sitting teacher of the year. For ten months I tried fixing this, not even speaking to the union until July.

They then moved my desk out of my classroom, leaving my medically fragile students without a teacher every time I had to use the computer, etc. I refused on grounds of safety and they went at me.

I decided my student's safety was more important than my career, to put it bluntly.

NoGodizGood-9 karma

why couldnt you just shut up and do your job? why make a big deal out of your sexuality? how do you figure your sexuality has any place in an educational environment with kids? its not your job youre special ed not sex ed. from my perspective as a parent how you figure its your job to give my kid sex ed advice?

who gives a shit if youre gay? youre the one making a big deal out of it. and not everyone wants or needs to know everything about you.

you got fired because they got tired of listening to your shit about being "gay".

sorry to burst your bubble but you arent unique. youre leaving something out, this is 2016 and homosexuality is as normal as heterosexuality

get over yourself, Princess.

Alwaysatodds6 karma

You should probably read his wikipedia page. He wasn't running down the hallways shouting out how gay he was. The administration found out he was gay, then demanded to monitor him both personally and privately, arbitrarily denying his right to free speech. He was told he couldn't say he was gay in public. What if you were told you couldn't kiss your girlfriend or hold her hand while walking down the street, and you would be fired if you were caught?

TeachOfTheYear3 karma

Thank you.

TeachOfTheYear3 karma

I never discussed my sexuality with my students. What I did do was talk to other teachers about the high number of suicides in lgbt teenagers and how, as teachers, we can help. My best friend killed himself when I was 15 and I know first hand how horrible a child's suicide is. But, again, I never discussed it with or in front of students.

So, to be clear, I was told I was not allowed to write or say ANYTHING about any subject unless I submitted it in writing for my boss to approve. Would you agree that your boss should control what you say? Would you agree to having to open personal mail you wrote at home for your boss to approve? Those were things I was ordered to do and I refused.

[deleted]1 karma


TeachOfTheYear3 karma

I think I did a great job. Being the only special education teacher to ever be recognized at this level kind of shows I was doing a great job.

But one person at work decided to go after me-- and, in doing so, put the health and safety of my students at risk. I had a classroom of medically fragile students and my supervisor had my desk and workspace moved out of the classroom down the hall leaving my students with no teacher in the class. I was ordered I could not be in my room at lunch or breaks, leaving them even shorter handed. I refused and fought--at that point I had taken their behavior quietly for ten months but when they began impacting my students, i filed complaints.

That iS my job.

llama_person-11 karma

Ever been pegged by a woman?

llama_person-14 karma

Oh, I thought this was an AMA.

TeachOfTheYear7 karma