National Teacher of the Year Winner Kurt Russell to Emphasize Diversity as Lawmakers in His Home State of Ohio Rail Against ‘Divisive’ Topics

Oberlin High School teacher Kurt Russell, named National Teacher of the Year, teaches U.S. History and multiple electives on race and the Black experience in America. (Courtesy of Kurt Russell)

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Kurt Russell, a Black history teacher and high school basketball coach from Oberlin High School in Ohio, has been known to give up his planning periods to sit with one of his players in class — just to make sure the student is meeting academic expectations.

A graduate of the Cleveland-area school where he’s taught for 25 years, Russell still works to pull together an annual basketball tournament and festival in Oberlin — the experience that convinced him it was a “joy” to work with high school students. 

“He just commands the best out of you when you’re tired and you feel like you can’t do anymore,” said senior Caleb Peterson, who has had “Russ” as a teacher every year since ninth grade and is taking three of his courses this year. He also played basketball freshman and sophomore year. “The lessons he’s taught me on the court or in the classroom will stick in my heart.”

On Tuesday, the Council of Chief State School Officers named Russell the 2022 National Teacher of the Year. Students and staff, wearing the school’s red, white and blue colors, gathered early at the school for a watch party. When the announcement came, just after 8 a.m Eastern on CBS Mornings, “the whole auditorium lit up,” Peterson said.

Teaching American history with a focus on the Black experience — at a time of intense national scrutiny over how educators discuss race and discrimination — the veteran educator plans to focus his year as the nation’s top teacher on breaking down barriers in education.

 “I would like to focus on diversity and making sure students receive a well-rounded educational experience,” said Russell, adding that he’ll advocate for girls to pursue STEM fields and more men teaching in the early grades.

He was inspired to go into education when he had a Black male teacher, Larry Thomas, for eighth grade math. “Culturally I could relate to him,” Russell said. “ His family migrated from the South. My family migrated from the South. Some of the discussion I had in class was personal to me.”

Russell turned that connection to his cultural roots into a career, teaching U.S. History and electives on race, oppression and Black music that are among the school’s most popular courses. When he’s teaching, his booming voice carries down the hallways. 

“He puts his entire heart into his students and they are very engaged in his lesson,” said Denita Tolbert-Brown, a business teacher at the school who has worked with Russell for 24 years. 

Peterson, who is weighing offers from Temple University in Philadelphia and Clark Atlanta University, said even though reading doesn’t “grasp” him like it used to, Russell has sparked his interest in books about racial history.

“No matter what I end up doing, I want to have the same impact,” he said about his favorite teacher and former coach. “I want to try to be like him and excel and inspire people.”

Oberlin High students gathered in the auditorium Tuesday to wait for the announcement. (Jennifer Bracken)

Russell feels fortunate that he’s been able to work in a “progressive” district where he hasn’t faced backlash from the community over teaching about racial and gender discrimination. Parents, he said, have been “accepting.” That’s in contrast to Republican lawmakers in his state, who have introduced three bills to restrict lessons on so-called “divisive” topics. One would also limit references to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Even so, broader opposition, combined with the impact of the pandemic, has left many colleagues feeling worn down.

“For me, it’s just the idea of respect,” he said. “If someone visits a doctor and the doctor prescribes the medication, we don’t think twice about that. In education, teachers are not trusted. Politicians are telling teachers what we can or can’t teach.”

CCSSO’s choice of Russell as the winner “does bring a perspective that could add to the conversation both in Ohio and across the country,” said Anton Schulzki, president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “But that will be up to him to decide how to use his voice.”

Bills like those proposed in Ohio are “scaring” people out of the profession, said Jeff Wensing, vice president of the Ohio Education Association.

“We are looking at a time where students are really not considering the education profession,” he said, adding that Russell’s most important contribution over the next year could be to spark interest in the education field among young Black men. “We need more teachers of color. Students need to see people like themselves standing in front of them as educators.” 

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