News

Oregonian: Mercedes Muñoz, Franklin High educator, named Oregon teacher of the year for 2020
Author: Eder Campuzano
Posted: October 7, 2019

To read the original, visit the Oregonian.

Mercedes Muñoz was just a few credits shy of graduating from Portland’s Benson High School when she dropped out. She was one of those kids, she said, who needed a bit of a nudge.

Muñoz went back to school and eventually enrolled at Portland State University. She graduated in 2013 with a degree in English and a minor in special education. That same year, Muñoz started working at Franklin High School.

Now she’s the one who does the nudging.

“I want to be that person and that face in the room that says, ‘Don’t stop. You can make it. You’ve got this,’” Muñoz said.

The special education department lead delivers on that promise, friends and colleagues say. And on Friday, Muñoz was named Oregon teacher of the year by the state Education Department during a surprise assembly at Franklin High.

Muñoz’s husband, Herbie Muñoz, found out about the award, which comes with a $5,000 cash prize, earlier in the week. He was “a bit shocked” to learn his wife had been named Oregon’s top teacher, but it was no surprise.

“She does all she can for these kids,” he said.

It was the second assembly in as many days at the Southeast Portland school. Principal Chris Frazier said the timing made it difficult to gin up enthusiasm among his staff, many of whom asked why the school was having its second such gathering in as many days.

It had been a trying week at Franklin, Frazier said. Both he and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero began the gathering by acknowledging the passing of Hoang Tran, a popular counselor whose body was discovered in Depoe Bay earlier in the week.

Frazier learned Muñoz was a finalist for the prize about a month ago and was the only person in the building to do so.

“It was a nice little secret to have and to hold for awhile,” he said.

It was up to Herbie Muñoz to rally the family to attend Friday’s celebration at Franklin. He called up a few members of the clan and told them the school was having a special event for the family’s resident educator.

Annette Campbell said her niece’s accolades are well-deserved and that education has always been close to Muñoz’s heart.

“She has a keen instinct to pull information out of kids and help them learn even when they don’t think they can,” Campbell said.

Muñoz won a regional teacher of the year award in late May, an honor that qualified her for the larger prize that was awarded Friday. She was nominated by fellow special education teacher Andy Clark.

Munõz learned about the nomination in an email. She immediately thought it was spam.

But reality soon set in. And Muñoz, who considers herself “a praying woman,” sat with the question for awhile before deciding to forge ahead with the application, she said.

Once she did, Muñoz typed away for six straight hours at her dining room table.

Her aunt and sister served as her editors, Muñoz said. They advised her to write less about her experiences and relay what her students face day in and day out.

Muñoz did just that.

“I don’t think people recognize, at the high school level, how much our kids are struggling with stress and anxiety and everything moving around all the time,” she said.

Muñoz said she wants to use the platform that comes with her award to ask adults to listen to kids. When she walks into a classroom, Muñoz said, she focuses on three key elements.

She cultivates relationships with her students. She has high expectations of them. And she makes sure to follow through when she makes a promise, herself.

“I can’t be one more person who makes a broken promise,” she said. “They hold you to that.”

Muñoz said it’s also important for educators to be introspective. Students have different needs from year to year, period to period, she said. Recently, some of her kids have needed more help with math than usual. And sometimes, she’s found herself getting stumped as well.

“Looks like Mrs. Muñoz is about to take some math classes,” she said.

In the end, Muñoz said she just wants educators to ensure kids get the fair shake they deserve. After all, she said, her teachers didn’t know she would eventually become an educator, much less become the top teacher in Oregon.

“We have to stop ruling people out,” she said. “You don’t know where the impact that you have given to a child is going to pay off or play out later in life.”