Russell, 50, was influenced by his mother's stories of segregation in Alabama and the civil rights movement in Alabama. He has also been influenced by teachers from his childhood. Russell spent 25 years teaching history and African American History at Oberlin High School outside Cleveland.
Tuesday's announcement by the Council of Chief State School Officers was that Russell has been named the Council's National Teacher of the year for 2022. He was previously named Ohio's teacher-of-the-year by the group.
Carissa Miller, Chief Executive Officer of CCSSO, stated in a statement that Kurt's long career shows how educators can shape students' lives from the classroom to extracurricular activities to basketball court.
The organization announced that Russell will be representing educators over the next year and acting as an ambassador for students across the country.
Francine Toss (his kindergarten teacher) was a white woman who introduced him to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat with other students in a circle in Francine Toss' classroom.
Russell stated, "She had the courage to introduce literature that was culturally pertinent." Russell said, "I thought, "Wow, that's someone who looks like mine."
He was also cast as a future eighth-grader by the moment he walked into the math class of Larry Thomas, a Black male teacher. Russell stated that Thomas' manner and conduct in class impressed him.
Russell stated, "He looked just like me in front the class and was a person that all the children enjoyed." "This seemed like a job I could enjoy. It changed my entire life."
His parents, Jerry Russell and Retta Russell, were segregated school students in Alabama. They moved to Oberlin in late 1960s to work as construction workers and to escape the Jim Crow South.
His mother, a Linden high school student, marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Linden on the invitation of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy was King's close friend, and a collaborator in the civil right movement. Students quit school to march that day.
Russell stated, "That's how history fell in love with me, hearing those stories."
After graduating from College of Wooster, Russell was offered the "dream job" of teaching in Oberlin. In his first year at Oberlin High School, he helped to develop an African American history class.
Russell also teaches two general history classes. Russell and a music teacher created a class called Black Music In the African Diaspora. It covers blues, jazz, and R&B.
He gave credit to the school administration for creating the class. They could have said, "No. Russell stated, "We don't need it right now."
Brent Betts, Principal of Oberlin High School, praised Russell's work.
Russell is also the Oberlin boys basketball coach. His team finished the season with a 16-6 record, and won the conference championship. Betts stated that Russell believes the development of young men is more important than basketball players.
Betts stated that "One of the best things about Kurt Russell was the classroom culture he created." He's made a culture where everyone has a voice, and students feel safe sharing their opinions.
Betts stated that Russell has high expectations, and requires academic rigor.
Betts stated, "He doesn't allow them to settle" They talk about difficult subjects."
Russell called critical race theory, an academic framework on systemic racism that has been deplauded by conservative politicians, commentators, a "dog whistle."
Russell stated, "I always tell individuals that I don't teach controversial courses." "I teach different courses. Teaching about the rights of women or the gay rights movement is not controversial.
Russell led a discussion last week in his African American History class about seminal events that led to the civil rights movement. He began with the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of raping two women in the 1930s. Then he moved on to Emmett Till (a 14-year old black teen who was accused of having a sexual relationship with a woman in Mississippi in 1955).
The students were then asked to form small groups and list the four most important rights that Americans have. Russell led the discussion with energy and all students agreed that voting rights are important.
Russell asked his students whether convict murderers should be allowed to vote. The students couldn't reach consensus before the dismissal bell rang. Russell answered the question, saying that murderers don’t have the right to vote. However, he wanted his students to think about it.
He smiled and said, "That's a difficult one."