Oregon's Teacher Of The Year: Distance Learning Is Failing Vulnerable Students

By Dave Miller (OPB), Sage Van Wing (OPB) and Courtney Sherwood (OPB)
May 7, 2020 6:45 p.m.

Oregon's Teacher of the Year is sounding an alarm.


Mercedes Muñoz has won accolades for her work as a special education teacher at Portland's Franklin High School. It's a career that follows a remarkable turnaround. She dropped out of high school when she was young, then went back, eventually graduated, and continued on to college.

Special education teacher Mercedes Muñoz at Franklin High School on Oct. 23, 2019, in Portland, Ore.

Special education teacher Mercedes Muñoz at Franklin High School on Oct. 23, 2019, in Portland, Ore.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

As she continues her work from home this spring, Muñoz says that distance learning is a farce — that it’s no substitute for in-person community, care and attention, and that kids are going to fall through the digital cracks. She recently joined "Think Out Loud" host Dave Miller to talk about her experiences with distance learning, and to share her concerns.

Q&A with Mercedes Muñoz

Dave Miller: Mercedes Muñoz, welcome to "Think Out Loud."

Mercedes Muñoz: Thank you Dave, I’m glad to be here.

Miller: Can you give us a sense of what your work used to look like? If I followed you around at Franklin for a day, what would I have seen?

Muñoz: Dave, if you had followed me around Franklin you would see a person moving about the building in between classes, and making connections with students and colleagues alike. That is one of the things I am noted for, that personal care and touch, and ensuring that students who otherwise might not be seen are seen, and that their voices are elevated.

Miller: This was on a Facebook post picked up by some education associations, and is how we thought to call you up. You wrote: "Our teaching practices are intimate. I strategize ways to build trust and rapport with the learners entrusted to my care. It starts in my heart and then manifests in the lessons that I cultivate based on knowing who they are, learning their idiosyncrasies, particular quirks, strengths, lagging skills, and needs; both spoken and the ones unsaid." What are you looking for? What are you paying attention to when you're among your students?

Muñoz: I am looking for students who are not engaging in the school setting. A large part of my job is teaching and being in the classroom, but I also look forward to those moments during my prep, where I would actually just go through the halls, looking for students who otherwise are not in classrooms and checking in, going, “What’s going on?” “How can I get you into the space or classroom where you’re supposed to be?”

And assessing what barriers were there, whether that was a student missing connection with a specific teacher, or feeling ashamed because they hadn’t done a particular assignment, or experiencing adverse things at home and otherwise not able to engage. As a special education teacher, that’s one of the things that I’m on the lookout for, is: who has access, and who does not. 

Miller: All of what you've been describing is the old reality, the old world that we're not in right now. How much of what you just described can you do from home?

Muñoz: At home, I am limited to the technology that is available, both to me, and to students and families. I am calling and I am checking in with students and families. I am emailing.

But not every family is accessing email, and not every family has access – even with the technology that was provided by some of the districts – not everyone has access to Wi-Fi. That’s something to consider when you’re asking students and families to engage with a new system. Systems are hard to navigate.

In my own home, I have the Chromebook that is issued by my district. It’s essentially on loan to me, and I am using the hotspot from my cellphone. We, in our own home, do not have Wi-Fi. 

Miller: You're paying for your own cellular data so you can connect with your students and do your required work?

Muñoz:  That is correct. I am paying for the data that I am using. We’ve maxed it a couple of times, but our carrier has recently — given COVID-19 — has said that we can have unlimited access. I’m really grateful for that, because if not I don’t know what I would be doing right now. 

Miller: How much are you able to check in with your students and really get a sense for how they're doing?

Muñoz:  We have a tutorial hour each day, and the most engagement that I’ve seen with students is in that one-on-one type setting, where they are getting support with organization and “How do I log on to Google Classroom?” And they can ask those questions in more of a one-on-one format. I think I’ve seen some reduction of angst there.

But when we are talking about the larger group meets – our district is using Google Meets – and for example, yesterday I got up at 6:30 a.m. and was going over my lesson. I wanted to do a social-emotional check-in. I wanted to assess how students were doing, and offer some mindfulness practice, and I had a game set up. It was going to be more lighthearted and I was hoping fun. And no one showed up. I didn’t have a single kid who showed up to the morning meet at 9:30.

When I look on the Google Classroom for the classes where I am doing push-in, I’m looking to see who is engaging in the online platforms. It is a stark reality, when I am able to notice who’s not showing up. It’s our ELL learners, our multi-lingual students. It is our students of color, black and brown. It is our students who have, even before COVID, been dealing with high poverty and high stress.

There’s a part of my soul that is crying out, “Hey, we cannot just continue to replicate the same inequities that we have seen over and over in our buildings.” 

Miller: In the post that you wrote on Facebook, you told a little bit about your own story, about trauma and abuse at home, and what the physical school building when you were in high school at Benson in Portland, what that meant to you. Can you describe what it meant for you to go to school?

Muñoz: I think, as many families, our family was not perfect. And there were things I experienced during my adolescence and high school years that were really foundational in informing my beliefs about equity and being seen.

School was that familiar safe place. It was something to push against, and it was a place that also pulled me in. I looked forward to community and being able to see my friends. There were specific teachers who validated me as a human being and made space for me to be myself and learn and explore.


I look back on those years and recognize how important it was to have such a strong foundational education base in a comprehensive high school setting. That was so important. 

Miller: Do you see younger versions of yourself in some of the students you're working work with now?

Muñoz: Absolutely. I see it as teachers and students being mirrors, and we reflect back to one another in some of the best ways. Some of that piece of identifying what’s going on with a student, even when they are not saying it, that definitely comes from being able to see portions of myself.

I know that as a student, I had a lot of pride. It’s not easy to trust everyone with your story and things that are happening. Once you tell one person, having to reintroduce yourself to someone new and share those things again? That’s hard.

In a trusting relationship with teacher and student, you have to build that rapport over time. It’s not something that just happens overnight. I think one of the things that I am recognizing here with the distance learning is, even with the strongest of relationships and rapport, when you start stacking multiple weights, if you will, on top of that, I don’t know that the online environment can handle and hold all of that.  

Miller: Do you have a sense for what life is like now for many of your students? You gave us the example that you did this prep to give people mindfulness and social and emotional grounding for the day, and nobody showed up a couple hours later when the meeting was supposed to happen. If no one is there, I imagine it's hard to know what's happening in their lives at that moment. But in general, what are these days like for your students?

Muñoz:  I have students who have shown up, and who share being worried, in general, about our society, about being ill, about passing that on to other people. Concern for, “What’s it gonna look like next year?” They’re asking, “Miss Muñoz,  do you even think that we’ll be back in the fall?” And some of those questions are really tough because I don’t have all of those answers.  

In the moment, I can provide reassurance about the community that we are trying to reestablish right now.

I am hearing from some students about food insecurities, concern for parents are also overwhelmed by navigating some of the systems.

I think we know within our community who some of those vulnerable families were prior to COVID-19, but then when everyone is being faced with a pandemic and work loss or working outside of the home, and those stressors, students are feeling that. Thy are experiencing that. And a part of what they are doing is trying to create some distance and shutting down, just from all of the swirl of media and “here, I need you to log in here” and “this teacher’s doing this thing” and “over here we’re doing something else.” We are asking a lot.

Miller: What are your biggest fears for this time?

Muñoz: I’m really concerned about what this will look like, returning to our school communities. I’m concerned about what’s happening in some of the remote areas.

Often in education here in Oregon, we are considering districts that fall on the I-5 corridor and I-205, and that’s not the whole story. I wonder what’s going on with some of our teachers and families in Hood River and further south and east of us. What does that look like? What does it look like for our indigenous communities and leaners? This is a much bigger picture.

And I don’t think it’s up to one single entity to try to resolve this.

We need our community members and we need one another to move forward. I’m concerned about what that will look like. How will we come together? How will we assess what has happened over this time? How will we move forward if we are considering, even, budget cuts right now that we don’t even know what that impact will look like?

I think it’s gonna be a matter of all hands being on deck, and it is going to take us, as a community, as a state, in the city of Portland and our respective counties, to make a decision on whether we are OK with saying that it is OK to leave certain parts of our population behind, unseen, unlearned, and what we are setting them up for.

Miller: Are you getting the support you need to support you students?

Muñoz: I think that our administrators and leaders have done the best that they can with the cards that we’ve all been dealt. I will say that. Do I think it’s fair to have teachers, the analogy has been said,  build the plane while trying to fly it? No. No. We know what best practices are, and this has not been it. And yet I think that we are all trying our best to make due with the challenge that has been presented to us. I’ll say that. 

Miller: You are not just a teacher. You're a parent as well. You have a seventh-grader. What has this time been like for her?

Muñoz: My seventh-grader is an internalizer. I have had to really carve out some moments, outside of the home,  whether it’s a walk or a drive, to try to get a pulse on what’s going on with her.

During our new school-slash-work week, it’s a little bit harder to gauge.

She’ll share some of the assignments that she’s working on, but in the last two weeks I have had to disconnect from some of the emails that are coming from her district, because it is overload with my own workload for special education and the things I’m being asked to do to meet student need.

I feel divided. There are things that I really would like to be providing for her and doing with her during this time, and also I have a call and an obligation to serve families and children that I am being paid to look out for. I’ve really been mindful, thinking about other parents and families who are trying to navigate this and do this. Yeah. It’s a lot.

Miller: Is anything giving you hope right now?

Muñoz: I am hopeful when I see the best ways that our Franklin community comes together in our attempts to serve one another and serve families. I am hopeful – today our equity team is going hold space for teachers to come together virtually, to, I’ve been calling it “lament.” It’s not about complaining, but it is about acknowledging that we are all grieving loss in some ways, and in order to move forward you’ve got to make space to process that.

That makes me hopeful – that we can set aside time to care for one another, and not just move forward with what I think it often a dominant culture response, which is to move into action, productivity. It takes some wisdom and strength and courage to slow down and think and to make space for one another. That gives me hope.

Miller: What a profound thing to think about, that what's hopeful at this time is acknowledging the grief. Mercedes Muñoz, thank you so much for spending time with us. Best of luck to you and all the work you're doing.

Muñoz: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Click on the "play" button above to listen to conversation.