I've been offered one of those life-changing opportunities where I know that the person who I was when I left won't be the same person when I return.
Asha Inc. (Asha is “hope” in Bengali) is a small American nonprofit that supports four schools in Bangladesh. They are the only schools in the country that take students with special needs. I've been asked to share my best practices with teachers at these schools and deliver a lecture for student teachers at the University of Dhaka. How could I say no? In a country where there is no training for special education teachers, the teacher-leader in me could not turn down the chance to help set a standard. I have to help these general education teachers who have stepped up to make a difference in the lives of disabled children in one of the most impoverished areas of the world. I have seen poverty before. I have been places where children are maimed to make them better beggars, and I have seen children eating grass because it was the only thing to fill their bellies. I know I cannot look upon poverty without it changing me. If one’s heart does not break, then it must go cold. And now I find myself embarking on a great journey. I hope to represent the best that special education has to offer. I’m going to share with teachers about “Person Centered Planning,” and how they help everyone see a kid with disabilities as a complete person with wants, needs and a future to look forward to. To the teaching candidates I will meet, I will advise them to make it a priority in their first year of teaching to find a good mentor. Without question, having an expert teacher who can serve as a cheerleader and a critical friend can make all of the difference in how successful the first year in the classroom can be.
Teaching Partners (a teacher-based professional development program that brings top educators in to share their best practices) has agreed to allow me to use their platform to keep in touch with the teachers in Bangladesh through the coming years. This first generation of Bangladeshi teachers with special needs students will need a mentor. Teaching Partners is going to allow me to be that person. During my time in Bangladesh I will be meeting with government officials who make decisions about education every day. My message for them is to continue to open more inclusive schools in Bangladesh and to support schools in the most impoverished parts of the country. This is my dream for their children. I will be honest, when I was named Oregon Teacher of the Year, I thought I had won a prize. I did not realize that only a handful of special education teachers have ever been recognized on this level. What that means is when I go to Bangladesh, they will consider me to be an expert in my field. My ability to make change has become amplified. My ability to advocate for kids with special needs is being heard by people who maybe don't listen to teachers very often. This is what I have been entrusted with. The futures of so many children. I must not fumble and I must not waste their opportunity. These are my goals. This is what I intend to do. It is the teacher who will return that is the question. I’m curious to meet the new me.
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to ...