The job of an American educator seems to grow more and more strenuous with each passing day. There are increasing debates over what should be taught in classrooms, with parents seeking to gain more control over what students are learning. From the anti-CRT and anti-DEI movement to lawmakers pushing against “woke ideology,” both K-12 and higher education are feeling the war against teachers. The growing polarization coupled with educator burnout may be creating considerable challenges. The current teacher shortage has created cause for worry, but there are glimmers of hope. Despite what seems like insurmountable odds, there are many teachers inspiring the next generation. One of them being the 2022 National Teacher of the Year, Kurt Russell. In this interview, Russell sat down to discuss his teaching journey, which started over two decades ago. Russell also shared what inspires him and offered advice for teachers that are struggling to find the motivation in a post-pandemic world.
Janice Gassam Asare: Kurt, could you talk a little bit more about yourself and your background for the Forbes readers that are not familiar with you?
Kurt Russell: Yes. I was born and raised in a small town in Ohio, Northeast Ohio, that’s called Oberlin. Oberlin is the seat of Oberlin College, and I graduated from Oberlin City Schools. I went on to the College of Wooster in Ohio, a small liberal arts college, and received my BA in history. And then I went to Ashland University, another small town in Ohio, and received my master’s in education. For the past 25 years, I have been a school teacher in Oberlin, so the same town I graduated from. So I teach history at Oberlin Senior High School.
Asare: I love that. I had read your story and I read that what really inspired you to…go into the classroom was encountering your first Black male teacher. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Russell: Yes. My first Black male teacher was Mr. Larry Thomas. And Mr. Larry Thomas was my eighth grade math teacher at Langston Middle School in Oberlin. And the one thing that I always tell my audience is that I can’t necessarily recall the information Mr. Thomas taught me. I can’t recall if it was algebra or geometry. But the one thing that I truly remember is how he treated me, and treated other students in his classroom. And his persona, his disposition, the way he carried himself was truly like a professional, someone who I have never seen before in that particular role. When I saw Mr. Thomas in front of the classroom, having the attention of students, Black students, white students, boys and girls, I said to myself, ‘Wow, this must be a very cool profession for people to like you, and for people to admire you, and people who want to be around you.’ And from there, I just fell in love with being a teacher in eighth grade.
Asare: So currently, you teach history?
Russell: Yes. I teach three, what I call interesting history courses. I teach a class that’s called African American history that was started maybe in my second year of teaching, maybe in ’97, ’98. And then I teach another course that is called race, gender, and oppression that started roughly 15 years ago. And most recently I started a course that is called Black Music in the African Diaspora. And what those three courses, what I tried to, I guess instill in my students or bring to my students is just a diverse curriculum, a curriculum that represents students in my class, or classes that they could feel a sense of belonging to.
Asare: I love that. I know that for me, I never had any Black teachers in all of my schooling until I went to college. So, I know that you’re definitely making an impact on your students, I’m sure, in ways that you can’t even imagine. How are you navigating all of the interesting press that has been circling the teaching of topics around race, gender, gender identity, oppression? Has there been any pushback and how are you dealing with that?
Russell: So far, people have been very receptive of my story, of my student stories, been very receptive of the courses that I teach, because I believe many teachers and Americans share the same core values in regards to education, the value of making sure that our students are humanized, sharing the same value of being truthful, and sharing the same value of equity within the classroom. And if we have those three common denominators, then progression could really start to happen in education. I have been so fortunate where I’ve been in spaces where people are so excited about the courses that I teach, and I’ve been in spaces where people would like to pick my brain about developing these courses. I’m so inspired and hopeful that this message could spread throughout the country.
Asare: I’m glad that that has been the reception…that actually gives us a lot of hope for the future. So, let’s talk about you winning National Teacher of the Year. Were you surprised? Was it something that you were expecting?
Russell: Yes. I’m totally surprised…I’m totally shocked. I totally experienced that imposter syndrome. I was nominated for Ohio State Teacher of the Year by a parent, and in the state of Ohio, we have 11 education districts. I became District 2 Teacher of the Year, and then became a finalist for Ohio State Teacher of the Year, and then ultimately became Ohio Teacher of the Year. And so, from there, of course, I was automatically nominated for the National Teacher of the Year. I received a phone call on a Friday night at a basketball game. I’m a varsity basketball coach. CCSSO called and said, ‘Congratulations. You are a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year.’ And my mind was just blown that I was a finalist. And then a few months later, I received another phone call after the interview process that I was selected as the National Teacher of the Year.
It’s been a whirlwind experience, an experience that I am truly grateful for, an experience that I am learning from. But I always try to tell people that even though I’m the National Teacher of the Year, by far, I am not the best teacher of the year. I just have this great opportunity to spread the message of equity, the message of diversity within schools.
Asare: I love that. And so, do you have any words of support or encouragement for teachers, particularly those teaching students from underserved and underrepresented populations?
Russell: Yes, I always try to really instill in teachers who are struggling that there’s hope in education. And as you look out into your classes, those young faces that look up to you, that admire you, it’s the reason why we are in this profession. It’s nothing like instilling and inspiring young people, and opening up doors for young people to be the best version of themselves. It is difficult, and we have to name it. I cannot sit here and tell you this morning that teaching is easy, that every day is fun. It’s not. It’s very difficult. It’s very demanding…but at the same time, it’s a profession that is joyous, and a profession that is, in my opinion, one of the most impactful professions that there is.
Asare: I agree. I actually think teachers are one of the most important jobs in this world. But often in this country, we don’t always recognize that, or put value in the teachers. For the teachers that are struggling out there, I think Covid really caused the disruption in the classroom. And for a lot of teachers, they’re not seeing the same levels of attention that students had in the classroom. The hybrid structure can be very disruptive. Do you have any words of encouragement for that teacher who’s really struggling, who’s maybe overwhelmed and just feels like they’re undervalued, perhaps underpaid? What keeps you going in those moments when you feel overwhelmed?
Russell: Especially speaking of the pandemic, Autumn Rivera, the 2022 national finalist for Teacher of the Year and 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year said something that really resonated with me, especially dealing with the pandemic. A lot of times we focus on learning loss, and that seemed very depressing. Students have lost so much, but she pivoted that, and she mentioned that we should really focus on what students learn during the pandemic, learning how to cherish one another, learning how to appreciate a little bit more. And that’s what I would tell teachers who are facing that dilemma. Let’s look at the positive side of this pandemic…that’s coming back to school, forming that community once again, that has been taken away from us. It’s something we should cherish and be joyous with, and that would be my message for teachers.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.