Michigan’s new top teacher is a trans educator who wants to fight for marginalized students

Owen Bondono, middle, was named Michigan Teacher of the Year Friday. (Owen Bondono)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

The first time Owen Bondono understood homophobia, he was 9 years old and two male classmates were hurling the word “lesbian” at each other as if it were an insult. 

Bondono, whose mother is a lesbian, intervened, asking if the boys understood what the word meant. They didn’t. Then he explained that a lesbian is a woman who loves other women and not men. 

The boys went on their way. But later, Bondono would get in trouble for talking about “inappropriate things” in school. The message, he said, was clear.

“It told me as a 9-year-old that my family wasn’t appropriate for school,” Bondono said.

Bondono, who grew up in Shelby Township, is Michigan’s newest Teacher of the Year. He is also the first known transgender person to hold that title in the state - a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said he isn’t aware of any previous state teachers of the year who have identified as trans. And Bondono is learning from others that he may be the first in the nation.

The recognition is deeply significant for him. He understands the challenges marginalized students face. And he wants to serve as a reminder to trans students that they can achieve anything.

There was a time, though, when some questioned his career choice. 

“I had many people who assumed that being trans would mean that I would never be a teacher, that there would be no one who would want a trans person teaching their children,” said Bondono, 31, an English language arts teacher at the Oak Park Freshman Institute. 

It’s only been in the last year that Bondono, who earned a degree from Wayne State University, has been open at school about being trans. Prior to that, only a few close colleagues knew.

Owen Bondono, Michigan’s newest Teacher of the Year, and his dog Mozzarella. (Owen Bondono)

“One of the reasons for putting my trans identity at the forefront of my voice as the Michigan teacher of the year is so that other trans people know you can live a life and be a regular person after transitioning.”

Bondono wants his presence to be comforting to trans kids and to their parents “who are worried about what kind of future they’re going to have.”

On Friday, he had a conversation with a former teacher of the year from another state who is gay.

“He told me that my existence is going to save lives right now. What bigger legacy could I ask for than that?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I didn’t have one moment. But there were a lot of educators in my family. My big sister is a teacher and she’s also my hero, so that helps. I originally went to college at Wayne State for music. My majors were vocal performance and music business. One of my on-campus jobs was working at the gym. I used to work at the climbing wall. My favorite part of that job is when someone would come in having never tried that before. They were nervous, but they were curious. I would convince them to try it. They would make it to the top of the wall the first time and be so victorious. Sometimes I would watch those people start to come in regularly and I was not a very good climber. I just liked it. I would watch some of these people easily outpace me very quickly. It was the coolest thing to be a part of that journey and that growth. When I realized that the music career was not actually where I wanted to go, I started thinking what else would fit, I realized very quickly that all of the things I’ve ever been interested in come down to helping people on those kinds of journeys. And the best place to do that is to be a teacher.

How do you connect with your students?

One of the things to remember as a teacher is that your students are people and they are each a whole and complete individual that goes so far beyond your classroom. So, some of the ways I connect with students is treating them as people and asking about their day and their lives and giving them grace and compassion. For the first week or two of school, most teachers are doing a lot of get-to-know-you activities. I learn little things about them in those activities and I try really hard to remember those things from day to day, so I can ask them the next day about them. I can build on those seeds that we’re planting in that week or two. I also try to go back regularly to community building activities. I don’t isolate them to the first week or two. 

Why is it important for you to put your trans identity at the forefront?

One of the reasons is so that other trans people know you can live a life and be a regular person after transitioning. When I was early in my transition. I went to the support groups at Affirmations in Ferndale. I met two trans men who were both middle aged who had families, careers, lives. For me that was the moment of realization that I could have that too. So, I want to be that moment of realization for trans kids. 

You said you were once told that parents wouldn’t want a trans person teaching their children. Has that ever come up?

Up until this past school year, I was never out with students. I was out to certain adults in my building, the ones that I knew and personally trusted. I never discussed it out loud. And I never discussed it with students. I knew that the wrong person complaining could mean my job. Up until the Supreme Court decision last month, it was legal in the state of Michigan to fire someone based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. What changed was that for the first four years [of teaching], every year the weight of not being out to students was heavier and heavier. One of my goals in becoming a teacher was being the adult I needed when I was in high school. And I knew I wasn’t doing that. Last summer I had a lot of conversations with my principals, with union reps, all sorts of other people. We found out the board of ed in my district has a clause in the nondiscrimination policy that protects me. With that protection in place, we decided that I didn’t have to hide it anymore. I didn’t stand in front of my classrooms on day one and make some sort of declaration. But things have a way of coming out in conversation. It’s made this past school year an amazing experience in ways I hadn’t anticipated at all. So far, I have been very lucky. If there have been parent complaints, it’s been shielded from me. No one has complained to me directly.

On the other side of the coin, just from some of the articles that have been published about me … There are definitely still people that don’t believe that I should be around children because of my identity. 

How do you deal with that?

It’s a scary thing. Especially because I know there are people out there that believe it so strongly that I might be a target of violence. One of the ways in which this strange COVID situation is protecting me … is that I live in Canada and the border is currently closed. That’s a level of protection honestly. Whenever I’m getting overwhelmed by either literal comments I’m reading that are negative or just the idea and thought of them, I am unplugging from that and I’m seeking out places where I know my support is. I’m re-reading positive comments, I’m listening to those voice mails. And I’m letting myself remember that even though my brain wants to focus on the haters, they are outnumbered at least in my personal circle, by my support. 

What does that mean for you to be the first trans educator to win the teacher of the year, possibly for the whole country?

I’ve always been lucky to have a supportive family and to have a family that is connected to the queer community. I’ve always felt like I’m a member of that community and many queer people are not that lucky. They may be the only LBGTQ person they know and the sense of isolation is so real and so harmful. As someone always connected to that history, I have always felt like I am a part of something bigger than myself. I love learning about queer history. And I love feeling connected to those people. Everyone who has taken a stand or broken a glass ceiling has led to where I am. Right now I am feeling both the weight and the honor of being the next step in that chain. I know that what I do here will help other people pave the way for them. I know that I am helped by all the people before me. I want my presence to be comforting to trans kids. I want it to be comforting to their parents who are worried about what kind of future they’re going to have. I was on the phone with another teacher of the year from a previous year in a different state the other day who is a gay man. He told me that my existence is going to save lives right now. What bigger legacy could I ask for than that?

What has teaching been like during the pandemic?

Teaching during a pandemic is definitely a difficult way to teach. I wouldn’t call what happened during the spring virtual learning. I would call it emergency virtual learning. Most of us weren’t prepared to do that. For many teachers, they weren’t necessarily the most tech savvy to begin with, or the most familiar with whatever tools we had to use. Trying to maintain engagement was incredibly difficult. Our district decided right away that we weren’t going to require any synchronous learning at that time because we didn’t know what situation our students would find themselves in. So we decided right away that at no point would our students be required to all meet at one time online. Instead, we provided options. We gave assignments that they could work on whenever, wherever. We all offered office hours, where we would be on Zoom or whatever, and they could come and ask questions or just hang out. 

How about for the fall, if there is virtual learning?

We’re going to have to build some of those synchronous moments back in because nothing replaces a conversation in a class. I’ve been teaching summer school. We’re on week three of summer enrichment. We’re teaching it entirely on Zoom. So, I have four classes. And we meet for 50 minutes on zoom, four days a week. And, I’m running it as a book study of Tiffany Jewell’s “This Book is Anti-Racist.” We’ve had some amazing conversations come out of that book that in a lot of ways rivaled the conversations I’ve had in person with my students. Some days it’s hard because I’ll log onto the call and I’ll be met with 10 black boxes with people’s names and everybody’s muted. And I’ve got to work really hard to draw them in. But that happens in the classroom too. What I’ve noticed the most, now that I’ve started doing this synchronous learning is that the skills that I used in the classroom are the same skills I need to teach virtually, just applied a little differently. I need to have patience. I know a lot of teachers are asking, ‘Everyone, camera on. Everyone, sound on,’ but … I don’t know what’s going on in my kid’s houses. I don’t know if they don’t want me to see that. I don’t know if they’re in a loud environment. Maybe they have their headphones in so they can hear me but the TV is blaring because their little sister is watching it. I don’t want them to feel like they can’t engage if they can’t have their screen on or their sound on. I’ve been telling them when I ask a question, you can unmute and respond or put something in the chat. And I’ve had some really interesting conversations where we flow between those different methods of communication, depending on the individual. 

One of the interesting things that’s happened with chat is when it comes to a book on anti-racism … we’re talking about some very personal conversations at times. I’ll have students privately message me in the chat things they want to add to the conversation but they don’t want their names or faces attached. I can then read it out loud without ever identifying them. So they get these alternate avenues into the conversation that we wouldn’t have the option of doing in class. I took the summer school gig this year, because I wanted to use it as a trial run for the fall. I’m finding that I’m really excited by it. 

I had a student today who told me that she learned that her grandmother was part of the Black Panther Party. She never knew. She feels that she is connected to the fight and that she is a link in a chain and that … it just blew my mind when she was talking. It’s exactly what I want these students to be getting out of these conversations. It was an entirely out of classroom experience where she got that moment talking to someone in her family and all I did was facilitate the conversation. And that’s when the best learning happens. It’s really exciting that I’m having these moments in this sort of unchartered territory of virtual learning.

How are you feeling about potentially returning to the physical classroom?

Personally, I’m afraid of going back right now. We closed all the schools in the state when we had 12 cases. Now we have three digits of new cases every day. I don’t understand how we think that’s safe. When I look at so many back-to-school plans, I see plans that are trying their hardest to keep everyone safe. But they assume a lot of ideal conditions. They assume that people will stick to them to the letter. They assume the supplies needed will always be readily available. What happens when all the schools have a run on masks, and suddenly they can’t be bought anywhere for awhile? 

What is the recourse going to be when a student comes to me in the middle of the day and says miss so and so took off her mask in class. What will I be able to do to keep everyone safe? For me personally, a big one is I get a lot of students every year who have experienced some sort of trauma within the school. They’ve had negative experiences and they have learned a response to that where they try to disengage and in some cases get themselves thrown out of the room as often as possible. The way I handle it as a teacher is I hold on to them tighter. I don’t kick kids out of my room unless it’s an extreme situation. So, they learn fairly quickly with me two things. One, that behavior is not going to get you kicked out. And two, the flip side of that is that my room is a safe place to make mistakes. Then those kids can start to learn from me because now they feel safer. I wonder, what if all they have to do to get kicked out of the room is pull down their mask and cough on their neighbor. How do I build that place of trust and safety with those kids?

Tell us about a way you’ve adapted a lesson.

In my room I stopped following scripted grammar lessons. Instead, I reframed my grammar instruction like I’m teaching a foreign language. My other certification is English as a second language. I noticed over my first few years of teaching that many of the corrections I was making on student’s papers were not actually examples of bad grammar. They were examples of places where my students had used African American Vernacular English in place of what we consider standard or academic English. So, what was happening is they were just using the wrong dialect. I start off the year now when it comes to grammar instruction with a lesson on what code switching is, what African American Vernacular English is and how it is a dialect that is fully worthy of being spoken, but that there are people in this world who will judge you if you don’t know how to code switch out of it at the right times. Once we have that foundation, then the grammar lessons I teach are usually me pulling up a rule in African American Vernacular English and comparing it to a rule in standard or academic English and letting students see the differences. So that when I’m correcting those “mistakes” in their papers I’m really just pointing out places where they should have code switched and didn’t. That’s been a radical shift for me in teaching grammar because my students know that their language is valued and the way they speak isn’t wrong, but I still feel like I’m giving them the tools they need to be successful in our society as they mature. I think a lot of them are surprised to know that those differences between the dialects are actually studied linguistic differences. And it’s not just slang and it’s not just the way people talk. But there are linguistic rules that go into this being a real language.

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