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Meet Michigan Teacher of the Year Owen Bondono

This blog post is mirrored from The Meemic Blog.

Owen Bondono is the Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2020-21, an award Meemic is proud to partner with the Michigan Department of Education to sponsor. Owen is a teacher at the Oak Park High School Ninth Grade Learning Community.

We talked with Owen about his teaching experience. Come back for his monthly blog posts chronicling his year, along with monthly guest blogs from the Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year.

What is your teaching experience?

I have taught English and creative writing for four years in Oak Park, with a year prior in a Detroit charter school. Before that, I spent two years as a special education paraprofessional and worked teaching summer school and substitute teaching all across Wayne and Macomb counties. In total, I’ve got about 10 years of professional experience, although only the last five have been as a certified teacher.

What is your mission as Michigan Teacher of the Year?

My mission is to help teachers and schools create spaces that uplift all students and are specifically rooted in queer-affirming, anti-racist teaching. I want to advocate for new and future teachers, and help all teachers survive and thrive during this pandemic. I also want to be what Laverne Cox calls a “possibility model” for other trans and queer people in education and beyond.

What is the biggest change in your classroom from when you first started teaching?

As a new teacher, I was all over social media when planning my classroom. It took me a while to realize that every choice I make for my classroom has to serve a purpose for students or it may as well be wallpaper. My classroom today still has bright colors, strings of lights and a few posters, but everything there serves a function. Either it’s directly useful to students, or it contributes to an atmosphere of calm and comfort for us all.

A lot of what I tried to implement as a new teacher relied on gimmicks and “tricks.” Since then, I’ve learned how to relax and better build relationships with students, and this replaces most of those gimmicky classroom management “tricks” found online.

What are the most important things that your students have taught you?

My students have taught me to listen more deeply. I can’t make assumptions about what a student is thinking, feeling or going through. When students act up in class, they’re expressing a need that is going unfulfilled. Every time I react to the behavior, I regret it later. Every time I slow down, have a conversation and really listen to what a student is saying, I build trust with that student and improve the class for both of us. When a student frustrates me, I’ve learned to give them more opportunities to participate, to express themselves, to have choices in their education. Eventually they learn that they’re safe with me. Once a student feels safe, they will try all sorts of academic tasks that otherwise would have intimidated them. But we can’t get to the academics until I’ve spent the time listening and investing in that relationship.

What is your favorite story/event from teaching?

What a big question! It’s hard to choose because my favorite moments are usually small-scale. My memory is full of moments when I sat on the stairs outside my classroom and listened to a student who was hurting until I saw them smile, or when unrepentant class clowns were suddenly hyper-engaged in an assignment.

One experience I love in my classroom, though, is being part of InsideOut Literary Arts’ Writers-in-Residence program. Poets come into our classroom every week and teach lessons on self-expression, and at the end of the program, each student gets a copy of the school’s professionally printed literary journal with their poems inside. I love watching my students show off that they’re published authors, and the program helps many students find their voice.

Who would play you in the Oscar-bait inspirational movie about your class and what would the movie be called?

Since Hollywood actors are always the more handsome versions of the people they’re playing, I’m going to pick Zachary Quinto, the guy who played Spock in the recent “Star Trek” movies. Or maybe Joseph Gordon Levitt. Either way, they’d need to get a little chubbier for the role! The movie would probably be called something like “Iced Coffee and Hard Conversations.” That’s basically what fuels my teaching.

Do you have any words of advice for teachers (rookies or veterans)?

To new teachers: It’s cliché advice, but be yourself! Your “teacher self” should just be your personality in a professional setting. Students can smell inauthenticity a mile off, and they’ll appreciate it when you’re your real self in front of them. And when you make mistakes (it’s inevitable), don’t be afraid to apologize to your students, acknowledge what happened and model personal growth for them. Before everything else, a classroom is just a room full of humans trying their best, teacher included.

To veterans: You’ve probably been at this game for longer than I have, so I’m not sure I can tell you anything you don’t already know, but remember to listen to the new teachers. They’re approaching our profession full of new ideas and new ways to do things. Help them figure out how to make their ideas work in a real-world setting, and don’t be afraid to grab some of those ideas for yourself! Marrying new teachers’ innovation with veteran teachers’ experience is how we create the best classrooms for everyone.

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