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PSU College of Education alumna named 2020 Oregon Regional Teacher of the Year
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: June 3, 2019

In her first term as an undergraduate at Portland State University, Mercedes Muñoz found herself homeless and on her own with her three children: an infant, a 7th-grader and a 2nd-grader. They were crowded into a motel room together, and Muñoz was trying to study for her finals.

“I was like: I’ve got to get finals done!” Muñoz said.

A first-generation college student, Muñoz rose through the academic ranks, starting with an associate degree at Portland Community College. Four years later, in 2013, she earned a bachelor’s in English and a minor in special education at PSU, along with a license to teach. She kept going, and in 2017, Muñoz received her Master of Education in Special Education and Teaching from the PSU College of Education (COE).

My (students) were so excited when they heard,” Muñoz said. “For them, it was like we have won. They were like, ‘She teaches us; that’s like winning.’”

She says that the Portland Teachers Program scholarship, which offers tuition support and mentorship, made it possible for her to be a teacher. Now, she has a roof over her head and a position at Franklin High School (FHS) as a Learning Center teacher and special education case manager. She’s also one of just 13 teachers in the state whom the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) has honored with a 2020 Oregon Regional Teachers of the Year award.

FHS senior Chris Two Two has had Muñoz a teacher for four years, and he said 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 said.

According to the ODE, winning teachers were “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.

Muñoz does not know who nominated her for the regional honor, and she was humble enough that she assumed the nomination announcement in her email wasn’t genuine.

“I figured it was spam,” she said.

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

Her colleague Gary Sletmoe, an FHS English teacher, said that it’s clear how much Munoz cares about her students and that “she is tough, but fair, and will fight for each student to be successful.”

Her students also believe in her.

“I think she’s a really good teacher,” said Emily Medina, a junior at FHS. “If you don’t understand something, she explains it to you in a way you understand. No matter how much you want to give up on something, 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.”

FHS junior Carol Dwyer said Munoz 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, a good day, and she checks in with you,” Dwyer said.

Muñoz said she has struggled like her students may have, so she often understands how they feel when life gets overwhelming.

“Part of what I bring to this community is authenticity and passion and hope,” Munoz said.

Because her focus is special education, she reaches a wide range of students with varying needs 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 and a treatise analyzing Maya Angelou’s poetry.

Sletmoe said 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 a ‘burger’ paragraph, using the visual of a cheeseburger to illustrate the necessary and different elements of a paragraph (topic sentence, analysis, etc.),” Sletmoe said. “I still tell students to ‘build the burger’ in class today when we are writing essays. Thanks to Mercedes, kids know what I mean!”

FHS English teacher Scott Aronson said that 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 said. “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 her emails evidence that belief in caring about others, with a quote at the bottom of each message 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.”

Munoz said that’s how she approaches teaching. For her students, that philosophy shines through.

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

Photos from top to bottom:

Mercedes Muñoz (right) works with junior Carol Dwyer at Franklin High School.

Senior Chris Two Two says he has had Mercedes Muñoz (right) as his teacher for four years, and he believes that she deserves recognition for all of the students she has helped.

To share story ideas about the College of Education, contact Jillian Daley at jillian@pdx.edu.