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The White House last week honored high school history teacher Kurt Russell from Oberlin, Ohio, who in April was named 2022 National Teacher of the Year. Geoff Bennett recently spoke with Russell about why he chose teaching, what inspires his students and how the new recognition changes his approach to the job.
Finally, tonight, my conversation with 2022's National Teacher of the Year, this week, the White House honored high school history teacher, Kurt Russell from Oberlin, Ohio, I sat down with him to talk about what this honor means. And both the joys and challenges of teaching today.
What started you along the path to teaching? What was the inspiration?
Kurt Russell, 2022 National Teacher of the Year: To teachers, my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Fran Santos, a middle aged white woman who just gave me this passion for learning. Her classroom was always filled with love and joy. And she introduced authors from marginalized groups, women authors and black authors. And I just fell in love with just the process of learning. And then my eighth grade math teacher was the first black male teacher I ever had. His name was Mr. Larry Thomas, and he just gave me representation.
How have you kept your students inspired?
I'm just trying to make sure that their social emotional needs are being fulfilled, just emailing them, talking to them, seeing them in the streets, I work in the same school district where I graduated from, so I live in the community. And so I see them in the grocery stores, I see them at the park, it just trying to make that human connection with them.
What more do teachers need in order to feel fully supported in the classroom?
You know what? That's a great question. I think we need just to feel respected. A lot of times we have policies that goes against the fundamentals of teaching. A lot of times you hear about the CRT, you hear about both Danny (ph). I think teachers are the experts in the classroom. And we need to be treated as such.
To that point, you teach African American history as well as race, gender and oppression. And you said during the White House ceremony this past week, that students need to feel represented in their coursework, in order for them to be well rounded.
Students must see themselves in the classrooms, and the curriculum in order to empower him to engage. That's why I created courses that allow students to feel value, courses that deals 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.
What do you make of the effort in your state and across the country, to really stifle what students are taught when it comes to identity, sexuality and race,
It's always been my position to make sure that students have this holistic approach to learning. I do not see my children necessarily as students. I see my children as firefighters, police officers, future teachers, doctors, lawyers, whatever the case may be.
And when I see them as those professions, I realized that they need diversity, and they need to be able to connect with all types of people. And so it's very important for me to give my students that approach to learning.
To teachers, do your colleagues do you feel as if you've been targeted by the culture wars at all?
From my experience, no. Oberlin High School, Oberlin city schools, the city of Oberlin is very supportive in what I do as a teacher and what other teachers are doing the classroom. We always have this position that we are here for the children, learner center. And I think that's what we do very well.
What was it like being at the White House this past week being celebrated by your colleagues and by the President and First Lady?
Surreal, absolutely surreal. First of all, President Biden and Dr. Biden was so gracious and cordial to open up their homes to myself and the other State Teachers of the Year. It's an experience that I will never forget. Very, very emotional. At the same time just realizing the history behind it.
How will this honor, change your approach to the job?
I think I'll become more aware because I'm learning. It will give me the opportunity to travel and to learn from other great educators out there. And so I could bring that back to my students this will be all worthwhile.
Kurt Russell, congratulations and thanks again for your time.
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Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He is also a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC.
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