By Matt Pizzuti, PQ Monthly
It all started with a heartfelt personal line in a speech he’d written as Oregon’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, said Portland Special Ed teacher Brett Bigham. The sentence went, “Fifteen months ago my partner might have been a widower, but instead here I am, one of the first openly gay teachers of the year, and just my being here sends a message to gay youth that it gets better.”
It was referring to a heart attack that Bigham survived in June 2012, and to Bigham’s partner of 6 years, Mike Turay, whom Bigham would marry the following May just hours after it became legal to do so in Oregon. And it referred, of course, to the fact that Bigham is gay.
Bigham believes it’s that line that triggered the spiraling relationship between himself and district supervisors, in which the life skills teacher of 11 years — who had so recently gotten his managers’ high recommendations to become Teacher of the Year — faced months of what he calls bullying and intimidation by those same managers, a tedious process of grievances to save his job, and a cascade of more than 33 written orders threatening him with disciplinary action up to termination over trivial demands.
First, some context about the unusual nature of Bigham’s job: Bigham isn’t your typical classroom teacher; he teaches life skills to 18-to-21-year-olds with disabilities directly out of the Multnomah Education Service District administration building. He leads a small team of paraprofessionals and nurses who help attend directly to the students’ needs.
“After kids in Special Ed graduate high school, they can get 3 more years of public education — a job training program — to get them ready for the next step in their life,” Bigham said. That could mean assisted employment, or a more intensive care setting if necessary. The students Bigham works with come in from schools all over the district. “These kids are the least represented,” he said — which made it all the more meaningful to Bigham to represent their cause, along with his own, as Teacher of the Year.
Instead of reporting to a school principal, Bigham reported directly to district administrators. In early 2014 it was Jeane Zuniga, the director of functional life skills for the entire district. In fact, Bigham works in close proximity to most of the top offices in the district, including the superintendent.
In January 2014, Bigham gave his speech at a public event in Hood River. It wasn’t the first time he’d given it, but this time Zuniga was there to observe and offer feedback. So when Zuniga and Bigham spoke about it afterward — Zuniga had already left the event and Bigham called her from the parking lot— he took notes.
Bigham said he was taken aback by the feedback he received.
“She said, ‘you need to stop saying you’re gay. You’re making people really uncomfortable, I think someone’s going to kill you.’ I asked, ‘you think someone will kill me?’ and she said ‘I think someone’s going to shoot you in the head.’”
Bigham said Zuniga told him to walk around the parking lot and look at the bumper stickers — implying that Hood River is a conservative area, as are many other parts of Oregon Bigham would be speaking at.
“I guess it sounded like an order, but I didn’t really think it could be,” Bigham said. “I kind of brushed it off.”
Bingham said he continued giving his speech at subsequent events without changing anything.
In April, in what Bigham argues was a reaction to the line about being gay, the school district forbid him from speaking in public at all anymore unless he had their approval. The district said the order was responding to an editorial Bigham wrote for The Oregonian supporting Common Core, a nationwide set of educational standards strongly supported by the White House. The teacher’s union said the order was unenforceable anyway — that his right to express his opinions is protected by the First Amendment — and that he could keep doing what he was doing, which he did.
Bigham said the district started doing what they could to make life difficult for him — they took away crucial members of his staff, boxed up his desk and supplies, and brought him a new supervisor who started off the bat making demands against his job.
In September, Bigham filed a formal complaint about the situation, to the Oregon Teachers Standards and Practices Commission, an Oregon state agency that oversees professional conduct in education. He filed another complaint in November, this time with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, an Oregon state civil rights watchdog, and said that the department will announce at any time whether it will take up his rapidly-evolving case. Bigham has since then also hired a private attorney.
“Let me give a plug to the union,” Bingham said. “They’ve been amazing and saved my job multiple times.” (The Oregon teachers’ union has named Bigham their own Teacher of the Year for 2015.)
District administrators may have gotten themselves in more hot water in February — and boosted Bigham’s claims about the district’s impropriety — when the HR office wrote Bigham an email saying Bigham could only take unpaid leave to receive a national teaching award at the White House if he withdrew his formal complaints. Bigham and the teacher’s union say that action shows the district is retaliating against Bigham for filing the complaints, which is illegal. With the union’s intervention, Bigham was eventually cleared to travel to Washington D.C. to receive his award.
Still, Bigham said he’s been put on what’s called a plan of assistance — in other words, probation — starting March 9. “I’m probably the first sitting teacher of the year — because I’m the union’s teacher of the year right now — who’s ever been on a plan of assistance.”
Bigham was unclear on what the next steps might be, or his future in the Multnomah Education Service District. Leaving the district to find another teaching job could be difficult due to the probationary measures against him — he would have to disclose them during the hiring process, and they could hurt his chances even despite his high commendations from the Teacher of the Year program and the White House.
“Over the last year there’s been these incredible moments, moments where I’m meeting Hillary Clinton as Teacher of the Year, then these incredible lows where I’m being written up for not teaching my students about leg-shaving,” Bigham said. “I guess I need to wait and see this play out. My hope is that some of these people will no longer be my supervisor. I want to keep doing what I’m doing — it’s what I’m recognized for.”