Portland State alumna named Oregon Teacher of the Year

PSU alumna Mercedes Muñoz, named the Oregon Teacher of the Year, beams in front of Franklin High School, where she teaches.

By Jillian Daley

First-generation college graduate and Portland State University alumna Mercedes Muñoz has been honored with the 2020 Oregon Teacher of the Year award.

A Learning Center teacher and special education case manager at Franklin High School (FHS) in Southeast Portland, Muñoz received her $5,000 check and award at an assembly at FHS on Friday, October 4. A matching $5,000 check also was also given to the high school.

“My response to all this is a mixture of joy, feeling very honored, and also vulnerable in the face of so much attention,” Muñoz said. “I am proud to represent Franklin and the state of Oregon.”

Oregon Department of Education (ODE) named her one of 13 Regional Teachers of the Year in May along with several other finalists including another PSU alum, Jon Fresh.

“I’m just trying to get a hold of all of this,” Muñoz told the COE on Friday. “It’s certainly overwhelming, and it’s good. I’m just not used to it.”

Muñoz fought through desperate times, including a period of homelessness with her three children, to become a teacher, receiving her Master of Education in Special Education and Teaching from the College of Education (COE) in 2013. She was able to attend college as a participant in the Portland Teacher Program, which recruits and retains teachers of color.

According to the ODE, applicants to the regional award are “assessed on leadership, instructional expertise, community involvement, understanding of educational issues, professional development and vision by a diverse panel of regional representatives.” The awards are done in partnership with the Oregon Lottery, and the regional honor includes a $500 prize and entry into the 2020 Oregon Teacher of the Year Award.

Muñoz said she doesn’t know who first nominated her for the regional honor, and she at first assumed the nomination announcement in her email was spam. But the news of the regional award was no surprise for her students, including FHS senior Chris TwoTwo.

“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,” TwoTwo said at the time.

Now, this modest PSU alum will serve as a spokesperson and representative for Oregon teachers at events including the Washington Recognition Week for Teachers of the Year in Washington, D.C. in spring 2020. She will also receive professional development and networking with other state Teachers of the Year for a year.

“What Mercedes has done to advance equity and inclusion at Franklin High School,” Gov. Kate Brown said on the ODE website, “especially with students from historically underserved communities, is a great example of the standard we must continue to strive for to ensure that every student in Oregon, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to learn and achieve.”

For stories on the COE, email Jillian Daley.

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