PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — If you’d asked her teachers in high school, Mercedes Muñoz might not have been the most likely person to become a teacher.
Now, she’s not only an educator but one who is exemplary in her field.
Muñoz, a special education teacher at Franklin High School in Portland, was named the 2020 Oregon Teacher of the Year and awarded a $5,000 check during an assembly held Friday, Oct. 4, at her school.
Accepting the award Friday from the Oregon Department of Education, in partnership with the Oregon Lottery, Muñoz told a gymnasium full of staff, students and supporters, that she was surprised to learn she’d been selected for the award, and wasn’t sure the email she received was real. After some reflection, she opened up about what led her to pursue a career in education.
“I think there’s a message in here for each of our kids, that when you feel the wind, you gotta go after the things that are yours,” Muñoz said during an award acceptance speech. “I’m not chasing somebody else’s dream. This has always been my dream, to teach, to fight for equity and to love on kids and let you know that you matter.”
Colt Gill with ODE’s chief education office said Muñoz was selected because she’s a teacher who “gives freely and generously to make sure (students’) needs are met.”
“This is a teacher who leads by example and pushes colleagues to examine their practices to make sure they’re equitable,” Gill said, adding that Muñoz “puts student needs first and … ensures that every student is seen and given a voice.”
This is Muñoz’s seventh year as a credentialed teacher. She serves Franklin’s special education students, and is also a member of her school’s equity team. Her focus on equity and inclusion is what makes her stand out, and what makes her work so powerful, Chris Frazier, principal at FHS, said Friday.
“Ms. Muñoz has the ability to touch kids’ lives and she takes her job very seriously,” Frazier said. “You see the passion she brings on a daily basis to work with students and help them achieve their goals.”
ODE also awarded a $5,000 matching award to Frazier and FHS.
Muñoz says her own path wasn’t perfect. She was a few course credits shy of graduating high school on time, but her passion to invoke change and empower young people, specifically historically underserved kids, led her to be recognized as one of the best in her field.
“We have to stop ruling people out,” she said following Friday’s award ceremony. “You don’t know where or how the impact you have given to a child is going to play out, or pay off later on in life. It’s not fair if we’re putting children in a box so tight that they can’t break out.”
For the state-recognized educator, teaching isn’t about perfection.
“I think sometimes people think there’s some kind of magic to teaching,” Muñoz said Friday. “It’s not a perfect system. It’s the hard work and dedication every day. … It’s a lot of grit and a lot of hard work. The people in this building have some grit and they are putting forth the effort. I’m happy to be amongst them. It’s not an isolated effort.”
She was joined Friday by family, peers and close friends.
Her sisters say Muñoz “goes above and beyond for the people she cares for.”
“She has the ability to speak truth even when it’s hard because she’s rooted in justice,” said Muñoz’s sister, Cimone Schwoeffermann.
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner