The President and first lady Jill Biden honored Kurt Russell, the veteran educator at Oberlin High School named the teacher of the year by the nonprofit Council of Chief State School Officers, during a ceremony at the White House for state and national teachers of the year.
Russell teaches elective courses in African American history as well as Race, Gender and Oppression. He’s also a varsity basketball coach and serves as the faculty adviser for the school’s Black Student Union.
The choice comes as conservative-led efforts nationwide have successfully moved forward over the last year to stifle discussions about race, gender and sexual identity in the classroom.
During the ceremony in Washington, the President took aim at conservatives for making educators a target of the culture wars.
“Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in this country,” Biden said. “Today, there are too many politicians trying to score political points trying to ban books — even math books. I mean, did you ever think … that when you’d be teaching you’d be worrying about book burnings and banning books? 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 said 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.
Conservative-led efforts aimed at schools, children, parents and teachers
Florida’s efforts have particularly struck a nerve with the Biden administration.
The measures are part of a broader effort by conservatives to make it more difficult for transgender and nonbinary Americans to receive gender-affirming health care, play sports or change their birth certificates and other identification documents to match their gender identity. LGBTQ advocates say that allowing people to use nonbinary gender markers can reduce the risk of harassment and discrimination they experience when their perceived physical appearances do not match the genders on their identification documents.
Teachers under pressure
America’s teachers, advocates argue, are still under immense pressure following the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic.
When adjusted for inflation, American teachers are bringing home $2,179 less per year, on average, than they did a decade ago, the NEA report states.
At Wednesday’s White House ceremony, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged that “teachers are being asked to do more and more” and highlighted the Biden administration’s calls for higher pay, development opportunities, more support staff and improved working conditions.
“We need more teachers,” first lady Jill Biden, a teacher herself, told the crowd. “I can’t promise that it will be an easy job, right? But I can promise that it will fill your life with meaning and purpose and joy.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Wednesday.
CNN’s Chris Boyette, Paul LeBlanc, Andy Rose, Tina Burnside, Zoe Sottile, Nicole Chavez and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.