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Kurt Russell with First Lady Jill Biden and President Joe Biden

Russell, M.Ed. alumnus, loves promoting diversity in education as National Teacher of the Year

Published on Feb. 16, 2023
History and Political Science

Kurt Russell still often uses one of the things he learned from his time in Ashland University’s Master of Education program in the mid-1990s.

“I learned to make sure you are honest to yourself as a teacher, not copy another teacher’s style and be authentic,” said Russell, who has been teaching history at Oberlin High School since earning his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from AU in 1996. “I use that every day as I teach.”

That philosophy helped Russell to receive the 2022 National Teacher of the Year honor from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

He said taking a sabbatical from teaching this school year to serve as an ambassador for students and teachers across the nation through CCSSO has been a wonderful journey that has helped him really grow as an educator.

“From a visit to the White House to testifying in front of the U.S. Senate and attending the collegiate national championship football game, I have been to a wide variety of places,” Russell said. “Most of the time I give a keynote address and sometimes I sit back and learn and celebrate teachers, which has been great for me.”

Russell’s journey has taken him to 16 states and Washington, D.C., mostly to education organization conferences or colleges to speak to future teachers or for professional development opportunities for educators. He will speak at an AU leadership academy seminar on March 3 in Cuyahoga Falls.

The organizations and colleges that invite Russell to speak cover his travel expenses, while CCSSO pays for his travel costs to the bigger national events like meeting with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, a community college educator.

“They are just genuine good people and such advocates for teaching and education,” Russell said about the Bidens. “Dr. Biden impressed me with her work in the classroom.”

Like he was recognized on the field before the national college championship football game, Russell received the same honor at the Feb. 11 Cavaliers game in Cleveland.

As much as he has enjoyed attending games and appearances in D.C., Russell said the best part of the experience has been the opportunity to uplift and affirm the great work of teachers across the nation.

He has been advocating for more diversity with faculty and curriculum at schools during his many visits, which most National Teachers of the Year do about 150 of each year since the honor began in 1952.

“It has been surreal, this moment in time, to go out and learn from other educators and amplify the teaching profession,” Russell said. “One of the events I really appreciated was speaking in front of parents in Maryland with the National PTA (Parent Teacher Association). It was good to see parents involved there.”

While he has enjoyed his sabbatical, Russell said he is looking forward to getting back in his classroom, coaching boys basketball and being an adviser for the district’s student-led Black Student Union, student council and junior class.

In addition to teaching general history courses, Russell helped develop African-American History and Black Music in the African Diaspora classes, as well as a class titled Race, Gender and Oppression.

When he returns from his sabbatical, Russell said he wants to use what he has learned from this experience to help improve the Oberlin school district any way he can. 

His extensive career shows the power of educators to shape the lives of students, CCSSO Chief Executive Officer Carissa Moffat Miller said in a new release announcing Russell winning the award last year.

The official announcement took place live on “CBS Mornings” on April 19, 2022, and included a video of comments from some of his students. Some of their praises included:

  • “Incredible teacher and person in general.”
  • “Strives for every student to succeed in his classroom.”
  • “Amazing role model.”
  • “He wants us to truly engage with one another and embrace new ideas.”
  • “He is very enthusiastic and he relates his curriculum to real-world experiences.”
  • “He’s a very active when he teachers; very expressive.”
  • “He does a really good job of fostering conversations where everyone can have a perspective.”

“You are changing lives, you are motivating young people each and every day,” said former Oberlin High School Principal Larry Thomas in the video, “and we are so blessed and proud to have you in our district teaching our children.”

Thomas, who retired a few years ago, became Oberlin High’s principal during the 1996-97 school year when Russell started teaching history there. Before that, Thomas was a middle school teacher in Oberlin, where Russell was born and raised. He was the first Black male teacher Russell had.

“Mr. Thomas got me interested in being a teacher just seeing the joy he had in teaching,” said Russell, who always mentions Thomas in his talks across the country, as well as his kindergarten teacher, Francine Toss, whom he said got him excited about learning.

“Then I hone in on my students and what I see in them when they study and learn from a more diverse curriculum,” Russell added about his talks. “I see more engagement, more of a sense of inclusiveness and more critical thinking with my students.”