His love of learning began in kindergarten when Kurt Russell’s teacher in his hometown of Oberlin read storybooks that illustrated diversity. “She made an effort to show pictures that looked like me,” he says, now a 25-year veteran of the classroom and 2022 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The program is considered the most prestigious teacher recognition in the country, and it is designed to celebrate teachers’ talents and commitment while inspiring leadership skills. Russell, who has taught history at Oberlin High School since the late 1990s, says this “very intentional” introduction to learning fueled his love of the classroom. It was cemented in eighth grade when his math instructor, Mr. Larry Thomas, was the first male black teacher he ever had. “It was a, ‘Wow — I had an attainable goal,’” Russell relates. “That is when I said, ‘I want to be a teacher one day.’”
Russell is a coach, a listener, a lover of storytelling and is passionate about igniting conversation and welcoming voices to the table with gusto. “I like to ask questions, and I love discussion in my classroom,” he says.
Don’t expect Russell to be behind a lectern or seated at a desk. “I walk around — I can’t just stand still when I teach, and I always give students something to really spark their interest in the classroom,” he relates. “I always believe that students should talk more than the teacher.”
This can pivot lesson plans sometimes, and Russell embraces that. “We take historical information and make real life observations from it,” he says.
“I was teaching a course called Race, Gender and Oppression. We were studying the Stonewall Riot of the 1960s, and our unit focused on the LGBTQ+ progression in that community in America, while looking at police brutality at the same time,” he says. “We were making this intersectionality, and there was a young student in the classroom who raised his hand and said, ‘All people need to be respected.’
“Even though throughout our journeys in life we might disagree in terms of politics and how we should raise our children, everyone should have a voice and be respected, and that is when I knew that class was making an impact,” Russell continues. “We have this whole new generation that believes that people should be treated with equity and fairness. It was so powerful, and all of the kids in the classroom started nodding their heads, confirming, ‘Yes, we believe that, as well.’”
The faculty advisor for the school’s student-led Black Student Union and a previous teacher of the year by the Oberlin Heritage Center and Oberlin chapter of the NAACP says his hometown has also had a significant impact on how he guides young people to embrace the values of respect.
“Oberlin is home and it has always been a special place,” he says. “I tell people, my parents raised me, but Oberlin gave me some values. It’s a place where we try to treat people with fairness and kindness.”
Russell is also the head coach for the school’s varsity basketball team — and he sees the court as an extension of his classroom. “I really do not teach basketball to win games,” he says. “I coach basketball for students to appreciate and understand the progress and what it takes to win games.”
If there is one lesson Russell hopes his students take away from his classroom, it’s this: Be respectful. Show kindness. Show empathy. “That is what makes our society great,” he says. “It’s not difficult to be kind or to respect others.”