Podcast: Creativity, Community, and Pride with Owen Bondono

Photo: Michigan State Teacher of the Year Owen Bondono in his virtual classroom.

Welcome back to Teachers in America! Owen Bondono (he/they) is a ninth grade ELA teacher at Oak Park High School, located in the Oak Park School District. In 2021, he was named the Michigan State Teacher of the Year. You can keep up with Owen on his website or on Twitter.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, hosted by our Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. I'm Lish Mitchell.

Happy Pride Month everyone! To kick off the summer, our guest today is 2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year, Owen Bondono. Owen is a ninth grade ELA teacher at Oak Park High School, located in the Oak Park School district. As the first-known transgender teacher to be named a state teacher of the year, Owen strives to create an empathetic space where students feel safe and empowered as they develop critical thinking and communication skills.

An advocate for LGBTQ+ youth and anti-racist practices, Owen is passionate about fostering supportive communities in all aspects of his life, inside and outside the classroom.

Now, here are Owen and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Hi, Owen. Welcome to the Teachers in America podcast. I'm so grateful that you are joining us and that we're going to have an exciting conversation. Owen, tell me how you came into the classroom.

Owen Bondono: I grew up around education in general. I have an aunt who's a music teacher. My grandmother worked as a secretary in schools for her whole career. And then my big sister went on to be a teacher as well, and she married a teacher. So there are a lot of teachers in my family, but I actually didn't want to be one. When I was younger, I was always told I would make a good teacher. I was told that all through my K-12 career and it was sort of a rebellion thing. I didn't want to do the thing that so many of my family members did.

So I actually went to college originally, double majoring in vocal music performance and music business, because I wanted to be a musician for a living. And after a few years of being in the school of music, I just realized it wasn't the career for me. Once music was no longer a hobby and it became a profession, it just wasn't what interested me. And I came back to the idea of teaching, as something I had always actually in the back of my head liked. And I had matured enough to realize that rebellion is a poor reason not to do something you actually want to do.

And so that's when I changed my major to education. And I picked English in particular. One, I've always loved reading and writing. And two, my big sister, who, like I said, is a teacher, she asked me to think of, if I could pick one skill to put into the head of every student, what would that one skill be? And then pick which subject you'd teach based on where you best can implement that skill. I couldn't pick one. My two were empathy and critical thinking. And I think English, for me anyway, seems like the clearest path to those skills.

Noelle: I don't think anybody's ever put it in that perspective.

Owen: Full credit to my sister, Dr. Brandelyn Tosolt, who is a professor of education at Northern Kentucky University. So full credit to her.

Several people in Owen's family are teachers, including his aunt, grandma, sister, and brother-in-law.

Noelle: Oh, well, give that credit. And you are lucky to have her as your sister; very wise. And I also appreciated how you came back to looking back at the rebellion versus this is probably the path you were always meant to be on.

Owen, I know one of the conversations we want to have and we're excited, is to congratulate you on being a Michigan State Teacher of the Year, and also have the conversation around being the first transgender State Teacher of the Year. And I wanted to talk to you about what that has meant, what you have experienced and been able to open up for the community. And then also, I want to have a conversation and talk about your preferred pronouns and why they are important. So can we have a conversation around that?

Owen: Yeah, absolutely. So first of all, a little terminology thing, just that I would push to the listeners a little bit, which is the idea of a preferred pronoun. I've tried recently to stop saying preferred pronoun and just say pronoun, because when you have someone who is cis-gender, which is to say that their birth sex and their gender identity align on the same side, those people just have pronouns. My big sister, her pronouns are she and her. But then somehow when you're talking about a transgender person, it becomes a preferred pronoun. So same thing with a name. I like to drop the word preferred and just say that person's pronouns and that person's name. It's not a preference. It's who they are.

Noelle: Thank you. And Owen, I want you to be aware, I am actually taking notes, because I've been looking forward to this podcast, to this conversation, because I have been wanting to be more informed, be more aware because I'm raising a teenager who is thinking and finding herself. And we talk about pronouns and she shares just the difference in even how she goes into a virtual classroom now. And the first thing that they're doing is sharing their pronouns, so that everybody understands how to communicate and support each other and recognize.

So when you think about your pronouns, how do you share that? How do you share that with students? And how have you shared that with other teachers?

Owen: With the wonderful world of Zoom, I just make sure that my name on the Zoom call says after it in parenthesis, he/they. So for me, I use he/him pronouns 98% of the time in my life, but I'm also comfortable with the gender neutral they/them pronouns. And sometimes I feel like I personally relate more to the they/them pronoun. For those who may not know my story already, I am a transgender man, which means that my birth sex was identified female at birth, assigned female at birth is the phrase, rather. And then when I was in college, I realized that I wasn't a girl, I was a boy. And I began to take steps to transition to making my inside match my outside, you could say. And so for that reason, I use he/him pronouns most of the time. And occasionally, I use they/them. So I use them sort of interchangeably for myself.

And so now on Zoom, when I log in my name underneath my picture says, Owen Bondono, he/they. In the regular classroom, I usually just go by he/him pronouns. It's just easier for everyone all around. Part of my opening survey at the beginning of the year, when I asked kids what's your cell phone number, what's your learning style, all those things, I ask them, "What pronouns should I use to refer to you?" And then I also asked them, "Who is it safe for me to use these pronouns around?" Because you never know, you might have a kid who comes to you with a pronoun that's not the one you expect and they want you to use that, but they don't want their parents to know about that yet. Or they don't want other teachers to know about that yet, but you've somehow signaled that you're safe, so they want you to use that. So I think it's important that we ask our students, not just for a pronoun, but also where we can comfortably use that pronoun for them.

And so usually at the beginning of the year when we have that conversation, and then as an English teacher, a lot of our early work is about identity in my classroom. I teach the ninth grade, so we're laying the foundation for all of high school English in my room. And so we talk a lot about the communities you belong to and how that affects your everyday life and your identity and so on. And I do that work alongside my students.

So when they're writing that they belong to the black community, maybe they belong to a religious communitywhatever it may beI'm writing with them about how I belong to the LGBTQ community. They see those things and we talk about those things and we're very open about it.

And one of the great things about being in my current position with this award is that I get to do education more broadly about being transgender and about being a transgender educator. But that's what I do every day in my classroom. I let my students know that this is a safe place and if you have questions about what it is to be LGBTQ or specifically transgender, you can ask me those questions.

And sometimes I may start my answers by saying to them, "Okay, outside of this context, that's a rude question to ask a transgender person. But because this is the space that it is, I will answer it for you." We have those conversations a lot in my room, but that's one of the joys I think of being an out, queer educator, is that I get to educate my students about things that they might be afraid to ask about. Or like you said, they're exploring their own identities or they know people who are exploring those identities and they're curious, and they have questions, but they don't necessarily know where to turn for those answers. And the internet is a wonderful place for connecting people, but it can also be a very scary place full of misinformation. So I'm happy to be able to provide that information for anybody, really.

Owen strives to provide an open and empathetic space for his high school students in the event that they may also be discovering their own identities.

Noelle: I appreciate your openness to even let a student know who is asking the question in the safe space and to say, "The way you phrase that or that question is actually rude." When you talk to a student, when you share that, what is their first reaction? Do you see them understanding and processing and then beginning to change the way they might be curious or the way they might change in dialogue and future questioning?

Owen: The great thing I think, is that the vast majority of the time, kids get it. Kids are open-minded and they're empathetic. So a lot of their questions are really just that natural curiosity. We're all naturally curious about people that we perceive as being different from us, but they don't have a problem with my identity or anything. And I don't often see a student who undergoes any kind of radical transformation because of me, because they come into the space already for the most part like, "Okay, cool. That's who you are. Great. Let's move on."

Often they're a little bit shocked when I come out, because it's not something that they're expecting. And because I think for many of my students I may be the first transgender adult that they've ever met. And so they may be surprised, but it's not a negative kind of surprise and their questions are curious rather than anything else.

Noelle: That's the thing I've noticed about this generation. I mean, generation Z seems to be a generation who actually was born into the necessity for empathy. And the older that they get, the more educated that they're becoming, that skill is further developed and it allows them to see and recognize. And I often see a generation that can get to solutions faster than others.

When you think back to your childhood, you mentioned that in the conversation that you were having with your sister, that empathy was a skill you recognized in yourself. At what age did you start realizing and seeing that as a skill? And how did you use that to the advantage of building up your strength from where you were from a child to where you are now?

Owen: That's a difficult question. We have a joke in my family that we don't have a family tree. We have a queer berry bush, because there are a lot of LGBTQ people in my family. My mother is a lesbian, so I was raised in a household where LGBTQ issues were the norm. And my mother has also always been politically active. So I was raised in a household where we went to pride marches. I remember being a kid doing my homework in the back of political action committee meetings that my mother was a part of.

And so I think you naturally develop empathy when you're in a setting where you're surrounded by people who are fighting for their right to exist, and to be who they are, and to live as fully integrated members of society. And seeing my own mother fighting for those things for herself and for her children, you can't help but be empathetic to people who are different from you because you know what it's like to be different.

Not to mention, I was an avid reader as a kid. I always had my nose in a book. And I think that reading is one of our most powerful tools for building empathy, because it puts us in all kinds of shoes that are different from our own. And you see the world from all kinds of perspectives that are different and you can't help but build empathy again for people who are different from you.

So I don't know that there's any particular moment that I can point to as to when I became aware of empathy as a skill. I just think I've always had the ability to look at things from a lot of different angles and to see the differences as not necessarily things that make us different in a bad way, but as things that make us different in the way that all human beings are beautiful and unique and different.

Noelle: Your response gives a full breath of who you are and where you are now. When you experienced people fighting for their existence, that moment, I think, just hit me in the reality of the importance of this conversation and the gift that you bring and every teacher brings into the profession from who they are to how we're shaping the future.

This year with being recognized and being Michigan State Teacher of the Year, why is that significant? Was there anything in the past that you would not have been able to share with students, you would not have been able to open and share your full identity?

Owen: Well, actually for the first few years of my teaching career, I was not out to my students. Partially, that was because up until this past June 2020, it would have been legal to fire me just for that reason. It was legal in Michigan to fire someone over their sexual orientation or their gender identity. And it's still legal in Michigan to discriminate in housing and in a few other avenues of our everyday lives. So part of it was, I didn't want to lose my job.

And another part is, I think when I was a kid, I remember when all the other parents realized that my mom was a lesbian, and suddenly there were kids who couldn't come over to my house anymore. And there were lots of little subtle ways that adults in my school shushed me when I tried to talk about my family and made it clear that that wasn't a thing we talked about in school and that my family was suddenly not appropriate for school.

And when you have those kinds of early experiences, I think there's always the fear that even the people who say that they're going to support you, and that they love you, and that they themselves are not homophobic or transphobic, there's the fear that if enough people complain, that mob mentality will take over. So even though my administration has always been very supportive and welcoming, there's still that fear that, okay, what if a whole group of parents decides to put up a fuss about how they don't want someone like me in front of their kids? You're never fully sure and confident that you're safe.

I was also afraid early in my career. I believe wholeheartedly that the core of teaching is building relationships between you and your students and that you can't be an effective teacher if you can't build those relationships. So I was definitely afraid that being out would hinder my ability to build relationships with certain students, that they would put up a wall right away that I wouldn't be able to break down.

But as somebody who was in high school at one point myself, as a student, of course, and didn't have active role models who were LGBTQ. I had my mother and some of her friends and community members, but that was sort of the extent of who I knew besides people in my own age bracket. And I told this story now several times, but I remember being a 15, 16 year old kid and sitting around with my friends, gossiping about which teachers in the building we thought might be queer. And at the time, it was just kids having a good time, whatever. But looking back, I can't help but think that we were just desperately seeking those role models that we needed and hoping that maybe somebody else in our life might be one of those role models.

And so the longer I went in the closet as a teacher, the more I felt like I was not being the teacher that I needed when I was in high school. So a couple of years ago, I met with my administration, my union leadership and so on, and really had a conversation about what it might look like for me to be out as a teacher, to make sure I'd be fully protected and supported, and also to figure out the best way to do it.

And what we ended up settling on was that summer, I actually provided professional development to my coworkers about how we make safe spaces in our school for LGBTQ plus students. And as a part of that conversation, I fully came out. I was already out in little ways to most of my coworkers, but I want it to be fully out with everyone, talk about what terms I use for myself and so on. And then what they should do if a student comes to them and says, "I heard that Mr. B is transgender," how do you respond to that? How do you make it a normal thing? "Yes, he is and that's not a big deal." How do you have those conversations, because I wanted everyone to be on the same page before I was out with students.

Noelle: Hey listeners, if you need another podcast to keep you up to date on the world of education, check out Shaping the FutureTM. My friend and colleague Matthew Mugo Fields sits down with industry experts to discuss how education and innovation can change the world. Subscribe to Shaping the Future on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Now, let's get back to the episode.

Owen has been teaching virtually since the pandemic began.

Noelle: So tell me a little bit about being a part of the organization for National Novel Writing Month.

Owen: Sure. So National Novel Writing Month is a challenge that happens every November. And the challenge is to write 50,000 words of a novel in that 30 days of November. It's very much a quantity over quality kind of challenge, because as a writer, you can't edit a blank page. And just being able to get that first draft out is one of the biggest hurdles that many authors have to get over. Especially because if you're the kind of person who's always thought to yourself, "Someday, I'll write a book," you have this image in your head of how someday you're going to sit down and this perfect book is just going to flow out of you, right? But that's not how writing works. You always have a garbage first draft; no matter what. Your first draft is always garbage. And then you revise to make it better.

And that's something that, as an English teacher, I actually worked really hard to get through to my students' heads, that even as somebody who very successfully got through my own educational career writing papers 20 minutes before they were due, I know those papers were not the best quality papers that I could have written, because your first draft is always going to be something that can be improved.

So for National Novel Writing Month, that's sort of the challenge, is can you just word vomit the first draft onto paper so that you can go back to it later and actually revise it and make it something good? So I started that challenge. I started participating when I was in high school. I was a junior or something the first year that I did it. And I did not succeed for the first few years. I got a couple thousand words, maybe 10 to 20,000 words, and then I would fizzle out.

But then in college, I started attending these local weekly meetups with a group; they're called Write-Ins. And they happen just during the month of November. And there were all these people who are also taking on this crazy challenge and working on it all in the same room. And that was the first year with the community support that I made it to 50K. And since then, so now I've participated for something like 17-ish years now, and I've only failed four of those years to make the 50K. And for me, a big part of that is that community of people that I'm doing this crazy challenge with.

So about a dozen years ago or so, there had been someone previous who was helping to organize the Detroit region for this, they're called a municipal liaison. But she was stepping down and she asked me and another friend to take over being the municipal liaison. And I've been doing that now for the last 12 or so years. So, that's really been a joy to me, is building this community of writers. And I know how much that community has meant to me. So trying to make it a place where everyone feels that sense of joy and creativity, it's become this weird thing where it's November, for me, exists in a bubble, in this magical bubble of, I just get to be creative in a completely unbridled and unrestrained way for that month.

And try as I might, I can't be as unbridledly creative in the rest of the year. It's like it's reserved for that month. So I try to just write as much and be as wildly creative as I can in that one month. And then I spend the other 11 months of the year, doing a little bit of writing and revising the stuff that I wrote before and still working on it, but it doesn't have the same intensity and joy that it has in November for me.

Noelle: Owen, what are some of the messages and ways that you reinforce how you're teaching students writing or how you're teaching them to lean in and listen and read with not just close reading, but with a critical literary eye to then engage more, not in just having conversations about the text, but applying that into what they're going to create and how they're going to evaluate and make their own understanding?

Welcome to Owen's virtual classroom, located in Canada for the duration of the quarantine.

Owen: Yeah. So first of all, nothing that I do is unique or anything. But one of the things I do is I think it's common to see a display in an English teacher's room of the writing process; from your brainstorming all the way through to your final draft. But one of the things that I do a little bit differently with it, for me in my room, it's a circle, not a line. So publishing and final draft feeds back into the pre-writing phase.

And we talk about how making your writing better is a cycle. So you receive feedback and then you go back to the first step of, "Okay, how could I make this better, based on this feedback? How could I move back through the drafting process in a way that is making it a stronger writing piece?" Some would argue that's what revision is. But that's sort of what I tell my students: revision is not just going through and making sure that you spell-check. It's going back through all the other phases and taking feedback and making it better and improving it constantly.

And part of that is I do that with my own writing in front of them. I write with them and writing right beside them was hugely influential in how I teach writing. But I do all of the assignments with them and in a way that they can see my process and they can see the way that I am moving through all those different stages and then moving back to them.

I also try to do a feedback days. It's so easy for students to get back that writing piece and see your comments or whatever, and then just throw out the trash and forget about it. So instead, I try to have a day where I give them back their writing and not only is there my traditional feedback on it, but I try to do things like, first of all, frame it as, "These are not things that you did wrong. They're just ways in which you can do better in the future." And then I try to give them a concrete, "Go back into your notes about this particular skill, about how we format dialogue. Reread those notes and then fix this section." Or, maybe it was that a certain section of their writing could be strengthened. I might give them some names of some of their peers who did really well at [the assignment]. And I'll say, "During our feedback session today, I want you to go and read that section from these students and then make your own better, improve your own."

And so the idea is that they have to act on that feedback in some way, right away, in order to make their own writing stronger, and then hopefully continue with that advice in the future. And I think that's key to doing everything is making sure that everything is always a cycle where there's not necessarily an ending point, but it's always a, "How are we going to make it better next time?"

So if I'm focusing my feedback on here are some of the ways in which you are really strong, and here are some of the things that you can improve for next time, then every kid is always improving. There is no kid who's just checking off all the boxes on the rubric good enough, you don't have to do any work. And it also means too that it's my practice to start with a strength and to list a few strengths from that piece, and then give one or two places where they can improve.

So even if the writing they gave me is a total mess and there's 10 bajillion things they could improve, I'm going to pick the two that I think are going to be their highest leverage places for improvement, and then ask them to practice those things, so that they're never overwhelmed. It's always, "Here's one or two ways that everyone in this room can get better, based on what I saw in this writing piece." So everyone's always getting better, but they're doing it from where they are, not from a place I expect everyone to be.

Noelle: Now, I'm very curious though, because in my reading and getting prepared, I found this fun fact that you enjoy Dungeons & Dragons. I didn't know that that still was a thing. So why do you enjoy it? Is it still a thing? In the 80s, there were kids that were in this Dungeons & Dragons Club at school.

Owen: Not only is it still a thing, but actually in the last couple of years, it's been growing in popularity again. There's been a resurgence. I never played it as a kid or as a teenager. My friends and I kind of wanted to when we were teenagers, but we didn't know anybody else who knew how to play. And there's often kind of a barrier of entry on these kinds of things, where if you don't have somebody who knows the ropes to help you out at first, there's a lot to wrap your mind around.

But then, oh gosh, maybe half a dozen years ago or so at this point, a friend of mine, she's played now for most of her life. And she offered to run a game that would be like a newbies game, where it would be her and another experienced friend of hers and then a bunch of us that she knew that had never played before, but were curious. She would run a game to sort of teach us how to play. And we're still playing that game now. That game is still ongoing. It's still going every Sunday.

For those listening who may also be Dungeons & Dragons nerds, I play a gnome druid, and I have played him now for, I think it's about five years. I played other games in other campaigns sense, but I always go back to that gnome druid. One of the nice things about D & D, is that it's not a board game where there's a winner and a loser. You're really just collectively telling a story with your friends. And the game mechanics, your different skills and your weapons and rolling the dice and all that stuff, those things make the story you're telling more interesting and random, because you can't just always say, "I did a thing and it's successful," there's luck involved and there's risk involved and it makes the story more compelling. And it also gives you some rails for the story, so that you have something to follow a little bit and to keep you on track.

But that's essentially what you're doing with a game of D & D, is just sitting around with your friends and playing make-believe and making up a story. It's collaborative storytelling and a collaborative gameplay in which everybody wins, because there is no winner and no loser. So in that way, this the Sunday game that we have, if I have to miss that game because I'm busy, I'm really sad about it. And in part, what I'm really sad about is the fact that I didn't get to just hang out with my friends for a couple of hours and make stuff up and have a good time. It's sort of like getting a childlike play date as an adult.

Noelle: One of the things I'm picking up Owen, is you're driven by communities. I mean, from the initial conversations we had with you thinking back to where you did your homework at different organizations and then Dungeons & Dragons, and ensuring that with students and understanding that they know their communities, I'm fascinated by that part of what I'm hearing from you. But I also wanted to know, is there anything that you need to just take care of yourself and focus on yourself? You can't have too many people telling you what to do or how to get it done.

Owen: First of all, absolutely, community is the core of my purpose in life and in this world, is to create and foster communities, both for myself and for other people. I'm a very creative person, but I think that most of the time, my creativity has to be aligned to my teaching; being creative in my lesson plans, and then the way that I'm going to implement things for my students. And so November is sort of an excuse, really, to focus that creativity on myself, on a writing project that I'm doing just for me.

And so when you talk about self-care, that's part of it for me, is giving myself those opportunities. For so much of my life, my energies are directed outward. They're directed to my students and to these nonprofits, where I'm working on building creativity and community with other people. And so being able to take some time to work on the things that are just for me, whether it's a writing project, or in the last few years I've been teaching myself ukulele, stuff like that, that allows me to take some of that energy and just direct it back at myself for a little bit. That is how I take care of myself. But you're 100% right that community is the center of what I do and what I feel. It's what I feel I have to offer to the world to make the world a better place, is this ability to build community for people.

Noelle: Owen, let's think about: it's the end of the day, or you're getting ready for the day. What's your go-to song? Do you have a walkup song? Do you have something that gives you energy or helps you process and reflect at the end of the day?

Owen: Well, I'm a giant music nerd. My original major, as I said, was music in college. So it's hard for me to pick one song or even one artist for anything in particular. But my go-to first day of school song, to pump myself up in the car, and this one is very nerdy, so I apologize. But from The Sound of Music, "I Have Confidence," belting that in the car full volume is very good for the first day of school. Also, "This Year" by The Mountain Goats, in which the chorus is, "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me." That one is also very good for belting at the top of your lungs.

Noelle: I like how you have added a caveat and the rule is "I have to be able to belt this at the top of my lungs." And so have you ever been driving the car and you are just pumped, you are singing, you are in it, you're on stage and you look over and you've made eye contact with someone who's been watching your concert?

Owen: I mean, to all those people, you're welcome.

Noelle: Oh, I love it. Does that even throw you off? Because sometimes I just smile and wave. And my daughter is like, "Mother, I cannot believe." And I'm like, "Hey, at least that person knows that you and I are enjoying this ride and we're singing and having a good time."

Owen: Teenage me fully got embarrassed by that. Yeah, 100%, but 32 year old me is like, "Yeah, whatever. I am who I am. It's fine."

Noelle: I'm thinking you're teaching virtually. Are you teaching virtually?

Owen: I am, yes.

Noelle: Okay. When you were in the building, did you ever find yourself daydreaming as you were walking? You put yourself out of the school just to escape?

Owen: Actually no, and it's weird because I'm a big daydreamer, just in my life. And certainly in the car on the way to or from school, yeah. I'll totally daydream, which is probably not safe, but I'll do it. But no, when I'm in school, I'm extremely focused on what I'm doing. I always have this thought: I think most teachers had a pretty disastrous first year of teaching, because every teacher's first year is a crash course in disaster. But I have this feeling that if I'm not putting 110% in while I'm there and I've got the kids and I'm working on school stuff, then I'm under-serving them in some way. I'm doing a disservice to those kids.

And so, even when I'm walking to go get my copies from the office or whatever, in my head I am running through, "Here is my to-do list for the day. Here's the stuff I can't forget to say to the kids." I am fully in it. But what I thought you were going to ask is whether or not I also sing and dance up and down the hallways, and the answer to that is yes.

Noelle: Okay. So what prompts that?

Owen: I'm a musical person and I like it. And I sing at my kids. Even on Zoom, I sing at them.

Noelle: Is it impromptu singing?

Owen: Oh, yeah.

Owen's Dungeons & Dragons set-up. One of Owen's games has been going on for 5 years.

Noelle: So could you impromptu something as advice as we wrap up, advice to teachers or what's in your head right now?

Owen: Just remember to be yourself. I don't know. I frequently make things like that. I just give it a melody in front of my kids. My favorite is in Zoom, I'm sure other secondary teachers who have been teaching virtually can relate to a bunch of black boxes with names and you're just pulling teeth trying to get kids to respond. Most days I'm not pulling teeth. Most days, we're pretty engaged or we're doing okay. But we have our days where things are rough and where kids aren't wanting to participate. And so I will start singing on purpose badly and loud about I'm going to keep singing like this until someone answers my question.

Noelle:Where are you? I cannot see you.

Owen: Exactly. And then finally, some kid will be like, "Oh my God, fine. I will answer."

Noelle: "Please stop." The one thing that what you just said, just remember to be yourself, I'm like already Broadway; hit the lights. Fosse, we got a chorus line going. Owen, I have so enjoyed this conversation from you allowing yourself to teach me and let our listeners hear your advice, the importance of allowing spaces for identity, for community, for you being able to have this expanded platform for more education.

So when you head into the next week, when you head into the next school year, what are you going to be taking from this experience of being a State Teacher of the Year, beyond and into your future?

Owen: For one, I think that my confidence in my own pedagogy has increased from this experience. I certainly, when I first was awarded this award, I definitely felt a lot of imposter syndrome and I still do, but I think that I have grown in confidence and I've also grown in my ability to talk about what I'm doing in my classroom. I get a lot of practice with that now. And just being better at talking about what I do in my classroom, I think helps focus me on what's really important for me in my classroom.

I've definitely been that teacher and still am that teacher in many ways, who puts in way too much overtime and doesn't take care of myself, because there's just so much I want to do for my students. And I think one of the nice things about this experience is it's allowed me to sort of prioritize what are the things in my classroom that are really important to me as a teacher. So if I am running low on energy, if I have spent way too much time on what I'm doing and what I'm preparing for my students, what should I focus on? What's the other stuff that it's okay if that's not 110%, if it's just 80%? It's given me these priorities that I can focus on in my own classroom.

It's also given me a lot of connections and a lot of relationships to other teachers all around the state and all around the country that have been so helpful and valuable to me. We all have that sort of plan network of people that help us out with who we are, and building that in such a huge way this year has been invaluable. And I think there are people that I've met this past year through this experience that are going to be my teacher friends for the rest of my career. And so I'm very excited about that.

Noelle: Thank you so much. Thank you for being a guest. Thank you for being a teacher. You now have me as a friend. I look forward to the next time I can reach out to you and partner or think about something that we might be able to do together. And I thank you for today and this conversation.

Owen: Thank you. I really enjoyed it as well.

Noelle: Hey listeners, it's Noelle and happy Pride Month! I loved this conversation with Owen. We just never know what each other are going through, and what we each bring to our school communities. And thinking about communities, that's what Owen represents. The reminder that we're in multiple communities, and we need to embrace that and use it to our advantage.

So whether it is Dungeons and Dragons, whether it is being a writer, whether it's being a thespian and you are all about Shakespeare in the Park, bring it. Bring it with passion; bring it with heart. And until next time, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

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