When asked his recipe for success, 2018’s Oregon Teacher of the Year Matt Bacon-Brenes responds with a Japanese word— kyōryoku, meaning “cooperation.”
Bacon-Brenes was awarded the honor at a surprise school assembly packed with cheering students and colleagues from Portland’s Mt. Tabor Middle School, where he has been teaching social studies in the Japanese Immersion Program the past 15 years.
A California native, he spent most of his youth in Lake Oswego and graduated from Whitman College. He got his start teaching English in Japan through an exchange program before returning to Oregon to teach at Gladstone High School for 10 years and then Mt. Tabor.
Bacon-Brenes is a respected teacher-leader at his school. Deeply involved in every facet of the academic program, he also organizes an annual trip to Japan he describes as “an enormously powerful educational experience that brings the pieces together of what students have been working toward since kindergarten.” He has led the school’s equity team since it was formed in 2010, engaging in a “courageous conversations” dialogue about race, gender, and privilege.
“Matthew is a master teacher who weaves his value for equity into everything he does,” said Oregon Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor, who personally announced the award at the assembly. “He truly represents the best and brightest among Oregon educators.”
What are you like in the classroom?
I’m very strict and demanding, but I also like to have fun. In my classroom, we’re going to use every minute we have and have fun doing it, but not by goofing around. When I make jokes or whatever, it’s always within the context of going after something more meaningful.
What’s your philosophy of teaching?
The greatest piece to anyone’s success in teaching is collaboration—with fellow teachers, with parents, and most importantly, with students. I’m not doing this alone, I work with a bunch of people to make it happen. I did not by any means win this award on my own. It is absolutely about the power of working together with people now and throughout my career.
Mount Tabor has a long legacy of collaboration, and that’s important because you have to be intentional about how you work together. When I arrived here there were already teams set up, so teachers would meet weekly and even daily to discuss their kids—you know, what’s going on with Johnny or Sally, Hiroshi or Yoko. That has continued in different ways.
There’s a word in Japanese—kyōryoku. It is part of the collectivist culture in Japan, and it plays out here at the school, too. If someone needs to get something done, everybody plays a part.
For example, just yesterday we were organizing a field trip because we got an amazing, last-minute opportunity to attend a theater performance. To make it happen and make it meaningful and connected to the curriculum would have been awful to do alone, so we worked together. It shows that collaboration is not only more powerful and effective, it’s also a lot more enjoyable.
How does a school foster that sense of kyōryoku ?
You have to be intentional, first of all. You have to make it part of the culture. Collaboration has to be in place structurally, but it also depends on what people choose to do with that. Here, our administrator does a wonderful job of promoting the idea that we are a community, a team.
And you need to develop strong leadership, not just at the top but among the teachers, too.
Where does professional learning come into play in your career and in your school?
There’s research on what really makes a difference in education. And it’s the teacher. But it’s when the teacher has gotten really good opportunities to work with colleagues and to reflect.
When I taught in Japan, we had an hour to preparation for every hour with students. In America teachers spend a lot more time in front of students than Japan or Finland or Taiwan.
Strong professional development is absolutely essential for success of a teacher or a school. You want your teachers to have access to awesome ideas. The time factor is another issue. You need to invest in giving the teachers time to pursue professional development and carry out meaningful collaboration, instead of pushing it to the fringes of the day. Any time you learn something new, you need ample time to make it your own and do something with it that works.
Just this summer I took part in a workshop on Quality Teaching for English Learners. And it was great. I’m 25 years into my career here and I’ve changed major pieces of my curriculum as a result, and I’m super excited. I always say that the day a teacher thinks they have it all figured out is the day they probably need to get out of the classroom and do something else.
As part of the Teacher of the Year recognition, you were cited for your commitment to equity. How does that shape your day-to-day approach to your work?
In the essay they ask you to write to be considered, I mainly talked about equity and social justice. Being part of the Singleton’s Courageous Conversations program dynamically changed who I am as a teacher and as a person. Governor Kate Brown said it really eloquently in a video at school board meeting this week: equity is not the icing on the cake, it’s the flour you use to make the cake. It has to be the core of what we do, how we interact with kids, with families.
My curriculum has changed dramatically as a result. My explicitness about topics like gender and race, and how that has played out in history has become a major part of my teaching.
Some of the most meaningful work I do is listening to kids’ stories about their experiences. I see myself as a story collector in a way, and when you collect enough stories you start to see patterns of things like systemic racism, white fear—the stuff that isn’t packaged in textbooks. And once you open that door and really start listening, so much more becomes possible.
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