On Wednesday, President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden honored Kurt Russell as the 2022 Teacher of the Year during a ceremony at the White House.
Russell, 50, who also serves as the basketball coach at Oberlin High School in Ohio, is a history instructor who teaches courses rooted in exploring oppression and African American history. He has taught for 25 years. He was selected out of four finalists by the non-profit Council of Chief State School Officers, which aims to recognize and honor exceptional educators across the country.
In the program’s nearly 60-year history, Russell is the first Black man named the National Teacher of the Year, according to the Ohio Education Association. He will take a sabbatical from Oberlin for the next year to speak at hundreds of events across the nation.
During his speech, Russell paid tribute to the teachers who inspired him to take up the profession. He acknowledged his 8th grade math teacher, Larry Thomas, who Russell noted was his first Black male teacher and always wore a shirt and tie to class. “When I looked at him, I saw a professional,” Russell told the White House gathering. “In him, I could see myself.”
According to a 2015 study by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Black men only make up 2% of the nation’s teachers.
Russell’s appointment comes amid the battle between conservatives and liberals over education. While conservatives rally against Critical Race Theory—which has not been proven to be taught in any classroom—liberals advocate for factual and culturally relevant curriculum.
Biden spoke directly to the divide during the White House ceremony.
“Today, there are too many politicians trying to score political points trying to ban books,” he said. “All because it doesn’t fit somebody’s political agenda. American teachers have dedicated their lives to teaching our children and lifting them up. We ought to stop making them a target of the culture wars. That’s where this is going.”
Russell echoed the sentiment during the ceremony that representation in coursework is essential to providing a well-rounded learning environment.
“Students must see themselves in the classroom and the curriculum in order to empower and engage,” he said. “That’s why I created courses that allow students to feel value. Courses that deal with women’s rights, gay rights and also a survey of Black history. It’s important that my students see themselves as I see them—with unlimited potential and full of gifts.”
“I am truly blessed to be a part of a profession that transforms and legitimizes student voices and plants the groundwork for a more culturally responsive education,” he added.
Kurt lives with his wife, Donna, in Oberlin. They are the parents of two adult sons, Kurt Junior (KJ) and Korey.