OBERLIN, Ohio — Oberlin High School history teacher Kurt Russell has a way of engaging students about the past by relating it to the present.
“I’ve always encouraged my students to talk in class, to have discussions in class, to have students think on their own, instead of that direct instruction where I’m giving all the answers,” he said. “I want students to think critically, to own their learning. And I think that has helped me teach history more effectively.”
Not to be outdone by the actor of the same name, Russell is gaining notoriety himself as one of the best teachers in the country. Earlier this year, he was named 2022 Ohio Teacher of the Year.
“When I found out, I had this imposter syndrome - like, ‘Why me?’” Russell said.
In late January, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) confirmed the Oberlin High School teacher’s standing by announcing he made the list of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
“Honestly, it feels good. It really does,” Russell said of his reaction. “Not necessarily for me, but it just feels good for the entire Oberlin community and all of the teachers that I represent.”
Teaching at Oberlin High School had been Russell’s goal since he was a student in the same halls. He credited his kindergarten teacher for instilling a love of learning at a young age.
In eighth grade, Russell was inspired to pursue teaching as a career when he had his first Black male teacher. As a Black man himself, he recognized the significance of the representation.
“Two percent of all teachers are black males. [That’s] very, very low,” he said. “I think it’s important in regards to reaching all students. It’s not just reaching black students, it’s reaching all students, and breaking down some stereotypes, some of the false narratives of Black males in the United States of America.”
Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Russell helped his students grapple with racial injustice and form the Black Student Union at the high school.
“I try to be as honest as possible. I think students are more than willing to learn about these tough conversations and they’re more than willing to participate in it,” he said.
Russell teaches U.S. history, History of the Americas, African American history, and Race, Gender, and Oppression to grades 9-12. He explained he strives to bring cultural relevance and diverse representation to his lessons.
“It’s equity, representation in the classroom. Make sure we empower students and give students a voice,” he said. “It gives students a sense of - ‘my education matters. My race, my sex, my sexual orientation - it matters.’ And it should be reflected in our curriculum. But not only our curriculum but our staff and our faculty as well.”
The four finalists, including Russell, will go through an interview process with the National Teacher of the Year Program’s Selection Committee. CCSSO will announce the selected winner later this spring. The 2022 National Teacher of the Year will spend the next year serving as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.
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