Brett Bigham was in trouble all through high school for doodling in class. Now when he pulls out his Sharpie and notebook, he’s using that skill to communicate with autistic children in his Multnomah Education Service District classroom who understand symbols better than words.
“I know that my odd set of skills — being goofy, my artistic ability, behavioral skills — all these things that I use in different compartments of my life come together in teaching,” says Bigham, who earned his Master in Special Education from Portland State University in 2002.
Bigham, in October named Oregon’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, entered teaching as an accidental career, but over his 11 years in the profession has worked to improve his special needs students’ lives.
He teaches life skills, taking students out to learn job skills and interact with the community. At PSU he learned techniques to help manage students’ behavior, but it’s his ideas and passion that have converged for an award-winning classroom.
Five years ago Bingham hosted a prom for special needs kids who are often excluded from such events because of wheelchair accessibility, need for an aid, or aversion to crowds and lights. He paid for it out of pocket; about 25 kids attended. Each year since the prom has grown, and now has grant support and 100 kids on the dance floor.
“My students have an exceptional struggle to keep up with the rest of the world,” Bigham says. “As soon as I met my them I knew I had something to help them move forward.”