Michigan’s First Transgender Teacher of the Year on Being the Educator He Needed

Owen Bondono says his classroom is a ”safe environment where students can be themselves”
Owen Bondono
Safe space: Teacher of the Year Owen Bondono strives to help marginalized students feel understood. // Photograph courtesy of Owen Bondono

Owen Bondono wishes there had been a teacher like him when he was in high school and struggling to make sense of who he was. Bisexual and transgender, Bondono faced unique challenges while growing up female in Shelby Township.

“When I decided to become a teacher, I knew I wanted to be the kind the high school me needed — a role model LBGTQ students can look up to,” he says. “Being ‘out’ with my students helps a great deal because I can show them they can overcome anything they are facing and be successful. … My classroom is a safe environment where students can be themselves.”

Bondono, whose passion for education is unmistakable, is in his sixth year of teaching English language arts at Oak Park Freshman Institute. Beyond the classroom, the enthusiastic 32-year-old serves as faculty adviser for his school’s Queer-Straight Alliance and as a facilitator for LGBTQ Student Safe Spaces. He’s also a member of the Anti-Racist Leadership Institute and Resource Coordination Team. The majority of OPFI’s students are Black.

As if he weren’t already busy enough, Bondono gained a whole new set of responsibilities this summer when the Michigan Department of Education named him the state’s 2020-21 Teacher of the Year. Becoming the first transgender person to earn the honor overwhelmed the usually talkative Bondono, leaving him momentarily speechless.

He was among 10 Regional Teachers of the Year, chosen from an applicant pool of more than 400, who logged into a Zoom meeting for the announcement. The 10 had been interviewed by a selection panel, had presented short professional development modules, and had answered questions on a range of topics.

“I was just happy being one of those 10 and was figuring out how I could be the best Regional Teacher of the Year I could be and planning on congratulating whoever was named state Teacher of the Year,” Bondono recalls. “Then my name is called, and they ask if I want to say a few words. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be me and had nothing prepared, but managed to pull it together and express how grateful I am.”

While Bondono was surprised by the award, his OPFI colleagues were not.

“Owen is a transformative leader,” says fellow teacher Desiree’ Fuller. “He has a limitless level of compassion because he knows what it is to be bullied and discriminated against.”

For Taryn Gal, chair of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s southeast Michigan chapter, the significance of Bondono being recognized in this way can’t be overstated. “Research shows the importance of having out LGBTQIA+ teachers in schools,” she says. “For LGBTQIA+ students, it can be lifesaving to have their identities and experiences reflected and represented in others in their schools and communities.”

As Teacher of the Year, Bondono serves as an advocate for about 100,000 teachers and 1.5 million students statewide, participates in discussions about how to improve Michigan’s schools through his nonvoting seat at State Board of Education meetings, and is a member of the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council. In addition, the Regional Teachers of the Year serve as Michigan’s 2020-21 Teacher Leadership Advisory Council, which works directly with MDE to tackle education-related challenges.

“When I decided to become a teacher, I knew I wanted to be the kind the high school me needed — a role model LBGTQ students can look up to.”

—Owen Bondono

“I didn’t fully realize how much this is both an award and a part-time job that I am thrilled to do,” Bondono says. “Just to be heard and visible as a transgender person with this unique platform is incredible. I want to show parents of transgender students that their children can have normal lives and I can be a voice for students and even teachers who may be feeling marginalized.”

Sensing his bisexuality early on, Bondono often felt marginalized during his childhood. Realizing he was also transgender took longer.

“I’ve known I was bi for as long as I can remember, but I knew I was different in some other way from a young age, but didn’t know exactly how,” he says. “I remember one time at school asking if I could play soccer with a group of boys and I was told they didn’t want girls playing with them, but I came away from that thinking I didn’t feel like a girl.”

Bondono reached a turning point as a freshman at Wayne State University when he began wrestling with unexplained anger.

“I really didn’t know where the anger was coming from and became introspective, looking inward at myself to try and figure it out,” he recalls. “I expressed how I was feeling to a friend and came to realize I was suppressing who I really am. I started dressing in male clothing and acting like a guy.”

It was then, at age 19, that Bondono made the life-altering decision to transition from female to male. The lengthy process — involving counseling, hormone therapy, changing his name, and undergoing surgeries — wasn’t complete until Bondono’s final surgery in the summer of 2018.

Bondono made another major decision during his time at Wayne State, switching majors from vocal music to education. It was driven by a desire to earn a living helping people, especially children, and also inspired by his older sister, a former Detroit schoolteacher who is now an education professor at Northern Kentucky University.

Bondono’s passion hasn’t waned despite being removed from his beloved classroom by the pandemic. He lives in Windsor, Ontario, with Canadian-born wife Elizabeth. He’s been teaching virtually since March.

Whether in person or online, Bondono’s teaching philosophy is the same. He explained it this way on his Teacher of the Year application: “Ultimately, teaching is an expression of my love of humanity,” he wrote. “My way of making my mark on the world is making the next generation better. If we could provide every student with a classroom where they feel safe and seen, we would see learning increase by any metric.”