Teaching Profession

Kurt Russell, a History Teacher From Ohio, Is the 2022 National Teacher of the Year

By Madeline Will — April 19, 2022 4 min read
National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell of Oberlin High School.
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Kurt Russell, a veteran high school history teacher in Oberlin, Ohio, has been named the 2022 National Teacher of the Year.

Russell, who teaches courses like U.S. history, International Baccalaureate History of the Americas, and African American History at Oberlin High School, was named the national awardee today on CBS Mornings. Russell, who is in his 25th year in the classroom, is also the school’s head varsity basketball coach and the faculty adviser to the Black Student Union.

Russell, who teaches at the same high school he attended, wanted to be a teacher since he was in kindergarten. “I’m just so proud to be a part of this profession,” Russell told Education Week after the announcement, adding that he was “excited, nervous, humbled—all the above.”

Russell plans to use his platform as National Teacher of the Year to advocate for culturally responsive curricula and a more diverse teaching profession. Only 20 percent of teachers are teachers of color, and just 2 percent of teachers are Black men.

“If I could be just a small part of a larger change, it would mean so much to me,” said Russell, who is Black. He added that in addition to more teachers of color, he also wants to see more male teachers in early grades and more women teaching STEM classes.

And Russell said his own students have “grown tremendously” from having a curriculum that reflects the diversity of their experiences.

“Students have been able to handle discourse a little bit better [and have] tough conversations with respect,” Russell said. “This is a country that is made up of so many great different individuals, so many different cultures and races and religions. And what I try to bring into my classroom are those different aspects—making sure that the narratives of others are being told through stories.”

CBS Mornings featured several of Russell’s students, who spoke of his passion in the classroom and his commitment to their learning.

“Mr. Russell always strives for every student to succeed in his classroom,” said Cam Thompson, a senior.

“He wants us to truly engage with one another and embrace new ideas,” said senior Anna Fritz. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned from him is to confront the uncomfortable.”

Even so, there has been a wave of conservative legislation in states and school board policies to limit how and whether topics such as race, racism, and LGBTQ issues are taught in schools. In Ohio, where Russell teaches, a bill was introduced earlier this month that would prohibit any “textbook, instructional material, or academic curriculum that promotes any divisive or inherently racist concept,” which could include critical race theory, intersectional theory, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, or diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes.

Some of the electives Russell teaches—like one on race, gender, and oppression, which has a unit on the Black Lives Matter movement—would likely be controversial, but Russell said they’re popular among students of all races at his school. In February, he told Education Week that he feels he has a responsibility to tell the truth to students.

“Adults feel as though our students are unable to have these tough conversations. Students don’t feel that way in my experience,” he said. “Students are willing, and it makes students more engaged in the learning process.”

An ambassador for educators

As National Teacher of the Year, Russell will serve as an ambassador for an exhausted workforce—new survey results show that teacher job satisfaction has hit an all-time low this year.

“Everyone has a favorite teacher, right? That’s the impact of teaching,” Russell told Education Week in February. “Does it get hard sometimes? Yes. Does it get frustrating sometimes? Yes. But at the end of the day, it is so, so worth it. There is not a profession, in my humble experience, that has made or is making a bigger impact than teaching.”

Russell was selected by a national committee from a pool of 55 state teachers of the year who hail from 49 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and U.S. territories. Illinois did not name a new state teacher of the year in 2022.

The committee includes representatives from 17 education groups and is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which facilitates the award.

The other three finalists were: Whitney Aragaki, a high school science teacher in Hilo, Hawaii; Autumn Rivera, a 6th grade science teacher in Glenwood Springs, Colo.; and Joseph Welch, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Pittsburgh.

Typically, the national winner and the other state teachers of the year are honored in a ceremony at the White House. The details of this year’s ceremony haven’t yet been announced. In October, First Lady Jill Biden and President Joe Biden honored both the 2020 and 2021 state teachers of the year in a celebration on the South Lawn, making up for the cancelation of the 2020 ceremony.

Juliana Urtubey, an elementary special educator in Las Vegas, won the national award in 2021. She was the third special education teacher to receive the honor in the award’s history, which spans seven decades.

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