For Brett Bigham, Oregon’s 2014 State Teacher of the Year, controversy has led to amazing connections. A passionate educator, Bigham has fought to help students impacted by special needs gain access to their communities so they may enjoy more enriched lives. He has created a series of on-line books to help students affected by autism prepare for local trips and vacations around the world. He also launched a special daytime prom so his older students could attend during their caregivers’ working hours. Additionally, Bigham has worked to help prevent suicide among LGBT youths. The latter, along with the fact that he refused to stop speaking publicly about his experiences as Oregon’s first openly gay Teacher of the Year, caused him to separate from his Oregon school district after a drawn-out legal entanglement. Bigham’s controversial journey has been detailed on a Wikipedia page. Since leaving the classroom, Bigham has used his legal funds to help people doing good things.
“The most fun was buying a book from Scholastic for every kid in a poverty level school in Arkansas,” he said.
As difficult as it is for Bigham to spend time away from his students, his powerful platforms have garnered international attention.
“Now I’m taking stands for LGBT kids, for teachers getting bullied by their districts, and for accessibility for students greatly impacted by special needs,” Bigham explained. “This is a unique existence that I am working to figure out. I am still heartbroken to have to leave my kids.”
Despite the difficulties, Bigham’s long string of awards led to an unforgettable summer of public speaking and traveling. In addition to his Oregon State Teacher of the Year award, Bigham was named the Oregon Education Association Teacher of Excellence in 2015. He was also given the National Education Association LGBT Caucus Teacher Role Model Award at the NEA National Conference in July 2015. He has traveled to Peru as a National Education Association Foundation Global Fellow. Bigham initially thought the high point of this recognition happened when he was named keynote speaker at the Save Our Schools Rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. this summer.
“It is tough to talk about that day without having an emotional reaction. Speaking about civil rights and social justice at the Lincoln Memorial is something I value even more than being recognized at the White House,” he said. “I was there with people like Diane Ravitch, and Reverend William J. Barber spoke after me. These are the things people dream about, and I would never have foreseen this in my future.”
The dream didn’t stop there. Just after Bigham left the classroom, he had written a letter to Dr. Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and cosmologist affected by ALS for almost 50 years.
“Nine of my students used voice output machines like his. Five used wheelchairs. I was helping my students deal with what Dr. Hawking deals with every day. His wheelchair and talking machine are necessary for all that he does. I often played his videos for my students—he is such an inspiration to us, and I wanted to thank him,” said Bigham. “He then invited me to see him through a letter typed up by his assistant.”
While traveling through Europe this summer, Bigham took him up on that invitation. Fittingly, Bigham had been working on his travel and access books for individuals affected by autism in Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania before meeting Dr. Hawking. During their visit, they discussed accessibility for people with special needs and voice output machines. Dr. Hawking even made a video for one of Bigham’s former students encouraging her to use her machine.
“Dr. Hawking gives us the example of why everything we fight for is so important. The British system could have said that he was sick and not invest in him, but they didn’t. Their investment has been such a great gift to society,” Bigham noted.
Bigham himself is working on his own gift of accessibility to his students and others around the world affected by autism and other special needs. Visit the blog tomorrow as we explore the project closest to Bigham’s heart—his guidebooks.
As he reflects on this past year, Bigham cannot believe all the events that have transpired.
“You have to stay humble, but you have to let yourself feel the impact of what’s happening to you or you’ll miss the reason you’re doing these things.”