Been There
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: September 24, 2019

Regional Teacher of the Year Mercedes Muñoz draws on her own troubled history when relating to her students.

IN HER first term at Portland State, Mercedes Muñoz found herself homeless and on her own with her three children: an infant, a seventh-grader and a second-grader.

“That was super-super-stressful to try to take the finals and do well and be in a housing crisis,” Muñoz recalls.

She and her boyfriend had been evicted from their apartment because they couldn’t pay rent—he had lost his job, unable to work as he struggled with sadness over deaths in his family. She and her boyfriend split, and she found a place to stay for herself and her three children in a motel in Sandy. That was 12 years ago, and Muñoz, 42, a first-generation college student, has slowly risen through the academic ranks.

She started her education with an associate degree from Portland Community College in 2005. Amidst her housing crisis, a friend sheltered her and her kids, risking losing her Section 8 government-subsidized housing by taking on unsanctioned tenants. Muñoz had no vehicle of her own and took a bus from her friend’s place in Gresham. Then PSU Portland Teachers Program alumnus Bud Mackay and spouse Vivian stepped up to provide Muñoz with a home closer to campus. Six years later, in 2011, she earned a bachelor’s in English from Portland State and soon after a license to teach. She kept going, and in 2017, Muñoz received her master’s in special education from the PSU College of Education. 
She says the house that the Mackays provided and the Portland Teachers Program, which offers all participants tuition support and mentorship, were what made it possible for her to become a teacher. Now, she has a home of her own and a position at Franklin High School as a Learning Center teacher and special education case manager. The man she loved overcame his loss and they married. She changed her name from Miller to Muñoz.

Now, with only six years in the profession, Muñoz’s hard work and dedication to teaching has garnered notice. In May, she was named a 2020 Oregon Regional Teacher of the Year by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE). She is one of 13 teachers to receive the honor.

“My students were so excited,” says Muñoz. “For them, it was like we all have won.”

Chris Two Two, who graduated from Franklin in June, had Muñoz as a teacher for four years. He says he wasn’t surprised when he heard the news about her award.

“When she got it, I was like, yeah, she deserved it because she helped a lot of people graduate and helped people stay in school,” Two Two says.

WINNING teachers, according to the ODE, are “assessed on leadership, instructional expertise, community involvement, understanding of educational issues, professional development and vision by a diverse panel of regional representatives.” The award, organized in partnership with the Oregon Lottery, includes a $500 prize and entry into the 2020 Oregon Teacher of the Year Award, which will be announced in September.

Jon Fresh MS ’93 is another special education teacher and graduate of PSU who has received the Oregon Regional Teachers of the Year award. He teaches at Westview High School in the Beaverton School District and specializes in behavior management. Fresh says he loves what he does and has helped many students weather difficult circumstances, but he was still surprised to be nominated.

“I think I am fortunate and incredibly humbled to be chosen for this recognition and in the company of some pretty incredible teachers,” he says.

Muñoz does not know who nominated her for the regional honor, and, in fact, assumed the nomination announcement in her email wasn’t genuine.

“I figured it was spam,” she says.

She did not respond for a month, and only after someone from ODE persuaded her that she was up for a major award did she write the essays that applicants must submit for consideration. She also quickly gathered the necessary letters of recommendation. But she actually has quite a few fans, including her colleagues.

Gary Sletmoe, a Franklin High English teacher, says that it’s clear how much Muñoz cares about her students and that “she is tough, but fair, and will fight for each student to be successful.”

Many students, in addition to Two Two, also believe in her.

“I think she’s a really good teacher,” says Emily Medina, a senior. “If you don’t understand something, she explains it to you in a way you will understand. No matter how much you want to give up, she helps you keep moving on it. You need all these things to be able to graduate, and she doesn’t want you to fail.”

Franklin senior Carol Dwyer says Muñoz is special because she cares so much, and when students need support, she’s there for them.

“She asks if you’re having a bad day or a good day—she checks in with you,” Dwyer says.

Muñoz says she has struggled like many of her students, so she understands how they feel when life gets overwhelming.

“Part of what I bring to this community is authenticity and passion and hope,” she says

MUÑOZ grew up in the Bay Area, arriving in the Mount Tabor area as a sixth-grade “terror.” She dropped out of Benson High School short of just one credit. Muñoz moved back to the Bay area and she was homeless for a few years.

“I remember I would stand at the campus of UC Berkeley, and I knew that something about college would change my life,” she says.

But for so long, she thought college wasn’t for her. Seeing her sister Cimone get accepted and attend a university helped change Muñoz’s mind about her own future. “When Cimone graduated, it really gave me hope, because if she could do it, I could; We came from the same family,” Muñoz says.

With support from Springdale Job Corps, she earned her GED and got her diploma from Reynolds High School. Then, she earned her two degrees at PSU and is now in the position to inspire other students.

Because Muñoz’s focus is special education, she reaches a wide range of students who come to her for support for classes of all types, including advanced placement courses. For her academic skills class, students study independently. Muñoz floats from desk to desk as students ask for help with how to craft and submit assignments that include historical reports, an exploration of Margaret Atwood’s work or a treatise analyzing Maya Angelou’s poetry.

Sletmoe says Muñoz is a great colleague, and her guidance helps students achieve in their other classes.

“When some students were struggling to write body paragraphs for their essay [for Sletmoe’s class], Mercedes came up with the idea of a ‘burger’ paragraph, using the visual of a cheeseburger to illustrate the necessary and different elements of a paragraph (topic sentence, analysis, etc.),” says Sletmoe. “I still tell students to ‘build the burger’ in class today when we are writing essays. Thanks to Mercedes, kids know what I mean!”

Franklin English teacher Scott Aronson says Muñoz has a comprehensive knowledge of each grade level.

“More importantly, she is kind and empathetic to the myriad struggles of our students, but she also holds them accountable for what they need to do in the classroom,” Aronson says. “She is extremely dedicated, and she doesn’t give up on any kid. She helps the kids who need help the most. She has been a tremendous resource for myself and others because of her ability to reach so many students.”

Even Muñoz’s emails show her caring. The bottom of each one includes a quote from American philosopher Cornel West: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

Muñoz says that’s how she approaches teaching. For her students, that philosophy shines through.

“She’s nice, and she’s the best,” Two Two says. “She helps us.”

Jillian Daley is a media relations specialist in the PSU College of Education.