After a months-long application process, Oak Park English language arts teacher Owen Bondono was pleasantly surprised to learn that he became Michigan’s Region 9 Teacher of the Year in May. But after meeting the other nine candidates in the running for the statewide honor in an online video call, he was convinced that this was “as far as I go.”
“I was completely surprised. In the Zoom call of where they make the announcement of who won I think you can see the roughly 30 seconds of just TV static happening in my brain when they said my name,” he said. “I wasn’t even expecting to win the regional teacher of the year, much less anything beyond that.”
After the fog faded, the reality of the win set in. Bondono realized that much of his role as MTOY would mean not only being an advocate for the over 100,000 teachers across Michigan but the 1.5 million students they educate. Bondono has set his sights on both making students’ virtual educational experience during the pandemic an equitable one and on being an advocate for marginalized voices among the state’s students. As an openly transgender teacher himself, he said it’s valuable that every student has the opportunity to feel secure at school.
“I think that, in general, as teachers it is our job to make students safe and comfortable in our room so that they can bring whatever version of their authentic self that they’re comfortable bringing,” he said. “Because, beyond the academics, our whole purpose is to grow them into confident, successful people.”
Building Empathy, Fostering Identity
This fall, Bondono will start his sixth year teaching at the Oak Park High School 9th Grade Learning Community. He said that while a teacher of any subject can create a deep and lasting connection with their students in the classroom, he believes that teaching ELA “uniquely situates” him to help students explore not only their own identities but their thoughts on literary themes that are applicable to society as a whole.
“I think school is the first real place where students get to assert their own identity free from things like their own family obligations or how the people in their lives already see them. Every year they get the chance, if they want to, to try and reinvent themselves. And sometimes in high school, students from class to class are trying to reinvent themselves,” he said. “So I think one of my greatest joys as a teacher is getting to see a student play with different identities and decide for themselves who they want to be and sort of settle into a comfortable version of themselves in front of me.”
Bondono said he has two main criteria for choosing student reading material: it has to be a well-written example of the English language and it should be relatable and enjoyable for students to study.
“One of the big purposes of ELA is to read from a lot of different perspectives and take those perspectives in ourselves. And, naturally, that grows our empathy,” Bondono said. “So, I think in discussing the sometimes fictional, sometimes nonfictional lives that we read about, we discover a lot about ourselves.”
And because of his own trans identity, Bondono hopes to reassure students and parents that those who discover they are LGBTQ should not be ashamed.
“[Trans activist and actress] Laverne Cox talks about being a possibility model rather than a role model, and that’s something that I’m hoping I can be for trans students and also other trans teachers or potential teachers: just someone who says, ‘Other people may say that they don’t want queer people teaching their kids, but even though that may be true some places, there are places where you’ll be welcome and you’ll be able to make an impact,’” Bondono said.
A Safe Space for Discussion
But merely choosing thoughtful content for students to digest is not enough for a true sense of safety, and subsequently confidence, in the classroom — particularly for those students who are in marginalized communities like the LGBTQ. Bondono said that much of his success in the classroom relies upon him showing his support for students daily.
“In a physical classroom, one of the first things I try to have up is just representation that shows them physically when they walk in that they are safe. I have a rainbow flag behind my desk, I have some of my classroom decorations purposely include historical figures from all kinds of books of the global majority — including LGBTQ,” Bondono said. “But that’s not something that will necessarily be available to me in an online setting [during COVID-19]. I think the biggest way that you show it — posters and stuff are great — but students have learned, especially LGBTQ students and other students of the global majority, to be wary of those kinds of symbols. Somebody can put up a poster without having done the internal work to truly be an ally.”
Additionally, Bondono says it’s vital that he doesn’t let students get away with any discriminatory discussion while in class — whether they intended their statements to be harmful or not.
“[I] combat not just any casual homophobia or transphobia that comes out of my classroom but also sexism and racism and colorism and classism and so on. And [I try] to not make it about punishing the student who said something wrong, but, instead, when those things do come out in my classrooms … I will stop and I will pivot our conversation in a way that hopefully doesn’t call out or embarrass the student who said anything. But it instead asks us to examine what attitudes that comment may have come from and what learned roles they may be perpetuating and why we may not want to perpetuate those things.”
When asked how he works to monitor his own biases so that he can effectively regulate classroom discussion, Bondono was frank: he’s unafraid to reach out for help. He works to create online learning-focused communities through social media. There, he connects with fellow educators and can confer about the appropriate way to handle different classroom issues.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve jumped on Twitter to say, ‘Hey, this happened in my classroom today, I knew it wasn’t OK but at the time I didn’t know how to respond,’” he said. “And then I get responses from other people, I absorb their thoughts, and the next day I might start off class by saying, ‘Hey, something happened yesterday in class and I want to talk about it now that I’ve had time to think about it myself.’”
He added that willingness to admit he was wrong is key to building trust among his students, too.
“A lot of teachers get this idea that they can’t apologize to students or that they can’t appear weak like they have any gaps in their own knowledge or experience in front of students, but I think the opposite is true,” he said. “They need to see that you’re human and that you can learn from your own mistakes and say, ‘Hey, I should have called that out yesterday, but I didn’t know enough to do it then and now I know better.’”
But as big of a student advocate as Bondono is, there may come an unforeseen element of self-advocacy during his time as MTOY. Specifically, Teachers of the Year from across the U.S. get the opportunity to meet with the president, but in 2019 an LGBTQ educator from Minnesota, Jessica Dueñas, refused to attend the event because of Donald Trump’s anti-LGBTQ legislation. Bondono said that depending on the results of the November election, he might do the same.
“The timeline for my award year is such that I would be meeting the president in 2021, so my hope is that I will not have to make any choices about what to do with the current president,” he said. “However, if it comes down to that, I don’t see myself in good faith being able to shake someone’s hand who has tried to take away my rights.”
Bondono will remain MTOY until 2021. To find out more about the process of application and to see his full list of responsibilities, visit gaybe.am/wJ.