Brett Bigham was named 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year.
Brett Bigham never intended to be a teacher. He was in California for a job as a writer and when that finished he needed a part time job. With the teacher shortages at the time they were accepting anyone with a degree as a substitute teacher. He signed up and within a couple of months he was called into the office of the Director and told he was being given his own classroom. Originally he figured he would just finish out the year for them, but instead found a love for the job. Even though the California school system offered to pay his way through college if he would stay and teach, he made the decision to head north to PSU.
Brett chose PSU because they had a fast-track program built for teachers who wanted to get their Masters in Special Education. However, his career in teaching was not going to be a clear path. After only three years teaching in the Portland Public Schools system he was badly beaten by an angry student which made him decide to take a year hiatus from teaching. That year turned into six and he busied himself with building furniture and designing restaurants. He was the original designer for Mother's Bistro and Bar downtown, and built or refinished all of their original furniture. Willamette Week named it Restaurant of the Year that year. He followed that by designing Mama Mia Trattoria downtown, as well as another restaurant that has since closed. He even appeared as the guest designer on the television program "Opening Soon." This entailed having a film crew follow him around Portland as I put together Mama Mia. But he missed teaching though and inside he knew that it was his true calling. He was hired by MESD (Multnomah Education Service District) six years ago and he says it has been a perfect fit.
MESD is the county agency that supports all of Portland's local school districts. Brett works in the Functional Living Skills Department and teaches multi-handicapped young people from all over the city. If a student comes to his room it is usually because they have needs that can't be met in a regular special education room.
No stranger to awards and honors, Brett was awarded a “Neighborhood Hero” award by Bank of America for his work in organizing an annual prom for special needs students in the Portland area. He has an Autism Light Award for people working in the field of Autism, was an OnPoint Teacher of the Year finalist in 2011, and the 2012 National Association of Special Education Teachers: Outstanding Special Education Teacher of the Year.
Brett has also created a number of online photo books that work as guides to the city of Portland for people with autism. Created for a single student, MESD saw the value for the entire city and gave Brett the platform to share the books.
MESD also gave Brett a platform to share his worksheets and curriculum with the community. “As a Special Ed teacher, very often you have to create some, if not all, of your own curriculum. Every teacher gets a couple hundred dollars to spend on their room but Special Ed teachers always face the same problem. Every student is at their own level so everything has to be adapted. In my room I need reading material at every level from pre-K to college level! No district gives you a budget for such a wide spread of abilities so Special Ed teachers become masters at creating their own work, their own art, their own everything. Currently this platform is only my work, but I hope that other teachers will start sharing as well.”
Brett says that “Winning Oregon Teacher of the Year is an opportunity for the state to see that there is another level of education that is helping our most at-risk and fragile young people. 25 years ago, many of my students would not have had an education. They would have been sent to the asylums or mental hospitals to grow up. As a society we have moved past that, but, unfortunately, not everyone realizes that closing the hospitals meant that those children with high needs, emotional disturbances and behavioral issues were all sent back to their local districts and into foster care. My classroom does the job that a hospital unit used to do, except that we are focused on teaching skills and moving them forward instead of housing them in an institution. I am incredibly proud to represent the ESD systems. I cannot wait to show other teachers and districts how my students, despite disabilities that effect every area of their lives, can still be part of society, can work jobs and can attend social events and enjoy life as much as the rest of us. I hope to set that example not only for other teachers, but also for people with disabilities who may not have the same opportunities my students have.”
We are honored to have such an inspiring teacher be an alumnus of Portland State. Congratulations, Brett!