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Top Special Education Teacher Dismissed After Months of Strained District Relations


Cross-posted from Teaching Now

By Ross Brenneman

In October 2013, Oregon named special education teacher Brett Bigham as its state teacher of the year. Bigham teaches functional life skills to students with severe disabilities.

On Friday, Bigham's district, the Multnomah Education Service District, fired himHow a teacher went from being the best in his state to out of a job in less than two years is a development that involves months of frayed relations between him and his district.

State teachers of the year enter into an awkward professional situation—the year they win, they often sacrifice a lot of time in the classroom they command so well in order to be a guiding light for other teachers. Districts and states know this. Teachers know this. And for Bigham, the 2014 school year began with that understanding.

But according to the district's firing announcement, Bigham never settled back down into his role as a teacher this year, instead taking too many days off to be involved in activities tied to being a Teacher of the Year and thereby underserving his classroom. And so they fired him.

Bigham counters that the Multnomah district fired him in retaliation for a series of complaints and grievances he filed against the district claiming that MESD has tried to suppress his advocacy for the gay community and interfere in his teaching. The issues Bigham expressed in those complaints started only three months after being named Oregon Teacher of the Year.

Bigham is gay. But he didn't publicly discuss that aspect of his life until a January 2014 speech for the Columbia Gorge Education Service District. After that speech, Bigham alleges, his department head warned him not to discuss his sexuality in public. (The department head denies this.)

As Bigham's public speaking appearances mounted over the following 14 months, the district hampered Bigham in numerous ways, his complaints state: 

  1. He received orders that all public speaking materials and appearances would require pre-approval from the district. 
  2. His department stripped him of classroom resources and tried to isolate him from his class. 
  3. His attempts to meet with superintendent Barbara Jorgensen, in order to resolve disputes, failed on multiple occasions. 

In August 2014, Bigham filed a grievance with the Oregon Education Association claiming his district was targeting him over his sexual orientation.

The District Investigation

In October, the district finished an investigation (obtained by the Portland Tribune) formed in response to the OEA's formal complaint. In the report for the MESD legal counsel, investigator Jim Buck found that "Bigham's allegations of harassment and discrimination based upon his sexual orientation have no foundation":

What should have been a year of celebratory joy for everyone stemming from the Teacher of the Year award has devolved into a situation fraught instead with acrimony. While Mr. Bigham feels legitimately aggrieved, there is no basis to conclude that his supervisors have acted either individually or in concert to harass or discriminate against him.

Buck's investigation appears exhaustive, including interviews with 15 district employees and reviews of all Jorgensen's emails with Bigham, as well as of Bigham's blog. But it is also laced with sharp criticism of (or, arguably, condescension toward) Bigham:

Mr. Bigham's [sic] displays a propensity to exaggerate certain elements in a communication. That unfortunate attribute diminishes his credibility as his assertions often are supported only by his skewed perspective or interpretation of communications rather than actual statements.

Buck also wrote that Bigham's reliance on local media further strained relations:

Mr. Bigham's reactions to issues have only compounded the problem. His handling of this matter in terms of publicizing it to the media has been regretful and unprofessional due to the inaccuracy of his reports.

In his report, Buck did try to spread some blame around, criticizing the district for not being more proactive in settling communication issues with Bigham, and for not consulting Bigham before making changes to his classroom. But most of the report's criticisms are reserved for Bigham.

Bigham told the Portland Tribune that the investigation "is full of lies." 

Education Week Teacher reached out to Bigham for proof that the district discriminated against him based on his sexuality. Bigham acknowledges via email that his case for discrimination hinges on "he-said she-said" testimony. But, he added, "the retaliation ... has been swift, harsh, and extremely well-documented."

Ongoing Disputes

Not buying into the investigation's results, Bigham filed a November 2014 complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The Oregonian reports that the department is currently looking into Bigham's claims. 

If the district sought to use that complaint as a moment for reflection, though, it was short-lived, because in January 2015, Jorgensen banned Bigham from attending any events not related to his position in the district, which included a February 2015 National Education Association gala in Washington at which Bigham was to be presented with an award. The district considered allowing Bigham to attend if he dropped his complaints with the state, which is legally questionable. Bigham's union and the district reached a last-minute agreement allowing Bigham to attend the ceremony.

Events came to a head in March. On March 9, Bigham filed another complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries detailing further alleged efforts by the district to sabotage his work. 

On March 20, the district placed Bigham on administrative leave over his absences. On Friday, the district fired Bigham. According to the district's press release:

MESD ... looked forward to [Bigham's] re-engagement and full focus in the classroom when he returned in the fall to start the 2014-15 school year. We were disappointed when Mr. Bigham continued to miss class time and prioritize outside activities.

The district and Bigham dispute the number of paid leave days that Bigham took off. The MESD also noted that Bigham declined mediation in March.

Another event coincided with Bigham's termination: On March 5, MESD announced that superintendent Jorgensen would be working "offsite." On March 17, MESD's board fired Jorgensen, and appointed then-Assistant Superintendent Jim Rose as interim superintendent. Bigham claims that his complaints influenced the decision, although the district disputed that interpretation in a statement to The Oregonian, and Bigham lasted less than a week under new leadership.

Since his firing, Bigham's become prolific on Twitter, encouraging use of a #standwithbrett hashtag, and many educators have come to his defense, as has his union. Bigham has been deft in his leverage of media attention, and because the headlines about a fired teacher of the year all but write themselves, it's a story many outlets have picked up on:

Many of the day-to-day interactions that drove all involved parties to this point will remain subject to memory and interpretation. There's no reported evidence that ties the district's actions against Bigham to his sexuality, but, where public documents exist, they demonstrate a pattern of tension, alienation, and distrust between a teacher and his district. Maybe district personnel didn't want to work with Bigham, maybe they were incompetent, or maybe Bigham turned a tiff into a war. Maybe a bit of everything. But right now, against his will, a state teacher of the year is not teaching; that seems bad for everyone.

Image: Brett Bigham, Oregon's 2014 State Teacher of the Year, arrives before President Barack Obama presented English teacher Sean McComb with the 2014 National Teacher of the Year award in the East Room at the White House last year. —Charles Dharapak/AP-File

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