Kurt Russell, a veteran high school history teacher in Oberlin, Ohio, was named the 2022 National Teacher of the Year on Tuesday by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).
“Kurt is a powerful advocate who always puts students at the center of his work," the selection committee said in a statement. "With more than two decades in the classroom and strong connections to his community, he speaks with warmth and honesty on how schools can best meet students’ needs. Kurt will be a passionate and authentic voice for teachers and students as 2022 National Teacher of the Year.”
Now in his 25th year as a teacher, Russell emphasizes cultural relevance and diverse representation in the curriculum of classes he teaches, including African American history; U.S. history; International Baccalaureate History of the Americas; and Race, Gender and Oppression. "Through these courses," he said, "I provide an inclusive and safe environment for studying the histories of diverse groups and encouraging all students' voices to be heard."
Russell, a member of the Ohio Education Association, also serves as a lead teacher for the school, advisor to the Black Student Union (BSU), and head coach of the varsity basketball team.
“On behalf of the NEA’s more than three million members," said National Education Association President Becky Pringle, "we congratulate Kurt for creating an environment where every student feels welcome, no matter their race, background, or ability...He is building a community of young critical thinkers who will enter the world more curious, open-minded, and knowledgeable - who will be able to see the world as it truly is – and demand more.”
Russell was born and raised in Oberlin and attended the same school where he now teaches. He was inspired to become a teacher by Larry Thomas, the first Black teacher he ever had. It was a revelation, he recalled, to actually see a teacher who looked like him. Thomas regularly attended student events, always dressed well, and was respected in school and in the community—a model Russell has successfully emulated throughout his career.
Russell's classroom has been a space for students to confront and examine difficult issues around race and injustice that directly impact their lives. In the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders in 2020, that work took on more urgency. As advisor to the Black Student Union that he helped organize at Oberlin, Russell has been instrumental in fostering a school-wide conversation around racial injustice. Furthermore, he helped organize a restorative justice agenda that has helped cut suspensions and behavior referrals at the school.
The BSU's impact on the school climate at Oberlin has been far-reaching, says Russell.
"A significant reason for this decrease is the continuous education of faculty by our student members about empathy and positive relationships," he wrote in his application to CCSSO. "Enrollment of White students in the African American History and Race, Gender, and Oppression classes have increased. The school's overall atmosphere is energized, barriers and stereotypes are breaking down, and an inclusive community is being built."
Russell strives to empower every student in his classroom - to make sure they are seen and heard, and that "we as adults are listening to them."
'Confront the Uncomfortable'
Russell appeared on CBS News This Morning on Tuesday for the announcement. During the interview, he was treated to video testimonies from some of his students.
Ryley Steggall, a senior at Oberlin High School, says Russell works hard to create a safe, respectful and constructive space for his students.
"Mr. Russell is such an incredible teacher and person, in general. He does a really good job of fostering conversations where everyone can have a perspective."
"He wants us to engage with one another and embrace new ideas," added senior Anna Fritz. "The biggest lesson I've learned from him is to confront the uncomfortable."
Russell was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. The others are: Whitney Aragaki, the 2022 Hawai'i teacher of the year, Autumn Rivera, the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year, and Joseph Welch, the 2022 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year.