During a recent morning at Franklin High School in Portland, Mercedes Muñoz walked around the school, stopping for conversations with students and impromptu meetings with other staff in the hallway.
With lunch in her bag, she was ready to help students, whether they are part of her caseload or not.
Muñoz, a special education teacher, was named Oregon’s Teacher of the Year in the fall of 2019.
In a wide-ranging interview with OPB, Muñoz discussed the physical and emotional toll that comes with being a teacher, her personal connection to parents and children with disabilities, and what she sees as her message for the coming year.
Muñoz started at Franklin seven years ago. As Portland Public Schools’ largest high school, it also has the most students on Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, a federal designation for students with disabilities.
Muñoz sees her new title as an opportunity to share her message of inclusivity for students with disabilities.
“Special education students are general education students first — they belong to all of us,” Muñoz said. “How do they learn to be together in society when they leave high school if the whole time, throughout their whole education, they are separated and siloed?”
Washington’s Teacher of the Year, Amy Campbell of Helen Baller Elementary, also teaches special ed.
It’s all part of why Muñoz sees 2020 as “The Year of Special Education.”
“Finally people are getting it and understanding. Special education matters and it’s a vital part of our work, and we can do better,” Muñoz said.
Special education started gathering attention in 2019, as a flurry of stories in news media profiled schools’ struggles to support students with a wide array of disabilities. The tactics of restraint and seclusion drew a national spotlight. In the Northwest, state laws limit school staff to restraining or secluding students for safety reasons, but schools’ tactics have been widely criticized for their effects on children. Oregon tightened its law on restraint and seclusion in the 2019 legislative session.
Also last year, Disability Rights Oregon sued state education officials, alleging the state is neglecting its obligations to students with disabilities, by allowing numerous rural school districts to short-change children eligible for special ed.
The lawsuits and national media coverage underscore the complexities teachers like Muñoz experience every day.
Anna York works at Franklin with Muñoz. York said people don’t always see the work that special education teachers do to help students. It takes a lot of energy, effort and time, she said, with a lot of learning on the job.
“You’re doing this weird hybrid of teaching and social work,” York said. “That’s at least half of the job, this social work stuff of helping kids get what they need either here at school or possibly outside.”
But the stress of the job can push teachers out of the profession.
Teaching takes a toll
Special education teachers have a predicted turnover rate that’s 46% higher than other teachers, according to an analysis of a National Center for Education Statistics teacher survey. Only foreign language teachers have a higher predicted turnover rate.
And the state cannot afford to lose more special education teachers. Oregon has listed it as a “teacher shortage area” for more than 25 years.
Muñoz has watched some of her friends leave the profession or cut back on hours.
“Many teachers that I know are struggling with depression … with physical ailments,” Muñoz said. “I myself have an autoimmune disorder. I had no medical issues before becoming a teacher. None.”
After a trying first year, Muñoz has attempted to be mindful of the energy she exerts at work.
But even with the progress she’s made to care for herself, every year is different. Last year was one of the toughest yet.
Several Franklin High School seniors she was close with were going through traumatic situations, including sexual assault, alcoholism and threats of deportation.
Muñoz said seeing those students push through to finish the year motivated her to do the same.
“If they’re going to show up … I better show up,” Muñoz said.
A personal connection to parents
Before Muñoz was a teacher, she was a parent. Years ago, as a single mother of a child struggling with attention deficit and reading difficulties, Muñoz felt alone in meetings with teachers and staff.
“I remember being at her elementary school and — really quite honestly being a woman of color, being a woman of not much affluence or influence — not being treated as a stakeholder or partner at that table,” Muñoz said. “For me, I could see that it’s possible for my daughter to be brilliant and smart and funny and have a disability.”
Her experiences as a parent got her thinking more about becoming a special education teacher.
Now, she wants to make sure parents never leave a meeting feeling the way she did.
That means empowering and supporting her students. In a speech presenting Muñoz with the Teacher of the Year award, Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill talked about Muñoz as an advocate for all students.
“This teacher ensures that every student is seen and given a voice in their educational journey regardless of what challenges or obstacles they may encounter along the way,” Gill said at the October assembly.
Greater teaching diversity
Muñoz is a graduate of the Portland Teachers Program, a college path that has connected PPS and Beaverton schools with more teachers of color. After graduation, students are required to teach for a minimum of three years in Portland or Beaverton.
The program goes beyond a standard teacher education curriculum. Students participate in seminars and meetings about race and class, issues affecting students of color, and how white privilege influences education.
Muñoz said she is one of three African American women in her school.
When talking about being a teacher of color in Portland, she repeats a line from a spoken word she performed for staff.
“If you want to know how hard it is to walk down these hallowed halls, look around you and see how many teachers of color are standing next to you,” Muñoz said.
For Muñoz, having more teachers of color should be a priority. But districts should make sure all teachers respect, support and build relationships with every student.
“It’s about having teachers who are well trained, who get it about equity, who are seeking to be lifelong learners and who are about excellence and who put children first,” Muñoz said.
On new school funding
Muñoz received $5,000 for being named Oregon Teacher of the Year.
Franklin High School received a matching $5,000 as well. But that’s nothing compared to the additional funding schools have coming later this year.
In 2020, school districts around Oregon will begin to see new funding from a business tax as part of the Student Success Act, a bill passed during the 2019 state legislative session.
For PPS, the state’s largest district, the tax will send an estimated $39 million from the state. The money must be spent on providing mental health resources or serving underrepresented student groups.
Muñoz said Franklin teachers discussed the funding at a staff meeting in the fall. She said staff focused on a couple of main ideas: smaller class sizes and more mental health specialists.
“We have two school psychologists to serve 2,000 kids,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz said she and her husband have talked about using her Teacher of the Year money to pay off debt and try to buy their family’s first home.
When it comes to spending Student Success Act funds, Muñoz wants to see Oregon schools focus on families too. She supports expanded access to pre-kindergarten and education opportunities for parents.
In a more general sense, Muñoz hopes this funding does more for current and future generations.
“Sometimes we are taking resources and we are kind of throwing them at the students, but I think you have to look at familial context,” Muñoz said. “How can we help engage parents? How can we support them?”
In Portland specifically, Muñoz said district officials need to take time to engage communities that may feel left behind and rebuild relationships.
“Families that are historically underserved and who have been very scarred by some of the actions of Portland Public Schools,” Muñoz said, “if you want them to be true stakeholders and show up and be empowered to show up for their kids, then there’s going to have to be some repairs and reconciliation.”