Teacher on tour: National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell ’94 advocates for diversity in profession and curriculum

Kurt Russell '94 with President and Dr. Biden

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Wooster Magazine.

Veteran history teacher Kurt Russell ’94 is taking a year-long sabbatical from teaching at Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio. It’s not a vacation by any means, but a professional victory lap of sorts to represent what he calls one of the most important professions: one that shapes young people’s lives.

Last April, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) named Russell the 2022 National Teacher of the Year (NTOY). He was one of four finalists from a cohort of 56 educators from across the nation who represented the field as the top teacher in their state or territory. 

“It’s a very amazing honor, and I never could have imagined it when I first started 26 years ago.” said Russell. “I don’t think of myself as the ‘best’ teacher, but I am someone who is grounded in the work and who is learning.” 

Russell traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive his award at the White House and meet President and Dr. Biden. “It’s a special memory I’ll of course have for the rest of my life,” recalled Russell. “How many citizens have the opportunity to go into the Oval Office where so many great individuals have sat on the couches and talked to our presidents? It’s very surreal and there are a lot of emotions being a part of that.” He traveled again to Washington to speak in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in June and for the State Dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron in December. 

After finishing the school year and officially taking on the formal title July 1, Russell’s been engaged in policy discussions at the state and national levels, advocating for the teaching profession and for students across the country. He will spend the balance of his NTOY tenure traveling to speak at organizations that have a commitment toward education, such as the National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, and others. When he’s not on the road, Russell takes the time to spotlight the work of his NTOY colleagues in his “Conversations with Kurt” video series on Facebook. 

Russell decided to pursue a career in teaching after being inspired by his first Black male teacher in
middle school. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from The College of Wooster in 1994, with a major in history and minor in Black studies. Two years later, he obtained a Master of Education degree in curriculum and instruction from Ashland University. Before the award cycle, Russell taught multiple courses, including African American history, U.S. history, International Baccalaureate history of the Americas, and a course on race, gender, and oppression. He’s also an advisor for the Black Student Union, student council and junior class, and has coached boys basketball since 1996. 

Russell says Wooster taught him to see multiple perspectives which influences his leadership inside and outside the classroom even today. “What’s amazing about Wooster is the learning that happens in the cafeteria, at Lowry, even walking the pathways between classes,” said Russell. “I met people from different cultures and learned from them, and that was key for me to be more of a well-rounded individual.” He also met his wife Donna (Granderson) Russell ’96 at the College. 

Academically, Russell was inspired by an African politics course with Akwasi Osei, then assistant professor of political science and Black studies, and by the intro to Black studies course with then associate professor of sociology Terry Kershaw. “These courses really garnered my attention because it was the first time I was introduced on the collegiate level to the history of Black people. They’re the reason why I developed an African American history class at Oberlin.” 

Kurt Russell '94 teaching at Oberlin High School

Kurt Russell ’94 teaching at Oberlin High School. Photo by Cody York Photography

These foundational experiences at Wooster also prepared Russell to take ownership of his own learning and think critically—which he now emphasizes for his own students, especially when facing uncomfortable topics. “All teachers are responsible to provide our students with the best holistic education possible, and the way I know how to do that is by telling the truth,” declared Russell. “I’m a truth-telling historian. It’s okay for my students to feel uncomfortable with topics because that’s how we grow. I just want to make sure that what I’m teaching is real and that students are gaining knowledge.” 

Russell also believes it’s important that students feel represented in his lessons. In U.S. History, he includes stories of marginalized groups like women and their roles in the Revolutionary War. He’s also gone out of his way to diversify his curriculum with new courses throughout his storied career. In the race, gender, and oppression course he launched several years ago, they talk about economic oppression, the feminist movement, LGBTQ+ issues, and other wide-ranging topics. 

“Teachers know what the kids are looking for, and Oberlin gives us the autonomy to introduce new courses,” said Russell. “We run it by them and get the green light, but the administrators empower us as the experts to do so.” 

Russell saw the value in his diverse campus experience decades ago, and it’s clear Oberlin values his perspective today (so much so that the community celebrated his NTOY win with a parade, a Kurt Russell day, and a street-naming). Above all of it, Russell wants each student to feel valued when they leave his classroom. He says he’ll continue to use his platform to diversify the profession—along with the curriculum—for those who follow in his footsteps. 

Photo 1: Kurt Russell 94 with President and Dr. Biden. Photo by Ron Sachs.

Posted in Alumni on March 15, 2023.

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