By Maegan Vazquez, CNN
President Joe Biden on Wednesday honored an Ohio history instructor who teaches courses rooted in exploring oppression and Black history as the 2022 Teacher of the Year.
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
Speaking to “CBS Mornings” after being named Teacher of the Year, Russell emphasized that he teaches history, not critical race theory — which recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish. The Ohio educator said he wants to make sure his courses are viewed as “normalized and not different.”
In Russell’s home state of Ohio this month, Republican state lawmakers introduced a bill banning instruction on gender identity, sexual orientation and critical race theory in the classroom for certain grades. The state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has said he wants Ohio to be “inclusive” and “welcoming,” but has not taken a definitive position on the bill. Earlier this year, DeWine — who was briefly a high school educator before entering law school — said he opposes critical race theory but believed the blemishes of American history, such as slavery, should continue to be taught in schools.
At least a dozen laws aimed at restricting how topics like racism, sexism and US history are being taught in American schools have passed in several states and more than 100 bills have been proposed since last year, according to the free expression group PEN America.
Recently, the Florida Department of Education announced the state rejected more than 50 math textbooks from next school year’s curriculum, citing references to critical race theory among the reasons for the rejections. The state is also among 26 states with book bans in school districts, PEN America says. Florida lawmakers banned the teaching of critical race theory in schools in June 2021.
Florida’s efforts have particularly struck a nerve with the Biden administration.
Biden took the rare step of weighing in on what was then a bill — and is now a state law — banning certain discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. Recently, Disney’s criticism of the so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law led Republicans in the state to pass a law last week that ends the Walt Disney Company’s self-governing status in the state.
And just over the last week, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill into law directing the state’s Department of Education to withhold some state funds from local school districts that fail or refuse to determine a student’s gender for participation in school sports. And Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt also signed a new law that bans nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates in the state.
Last month, a Texas appeals court also reinstated a temporary injunction ensuring families seeking gender-affirming care for their transgender children cannot be investigated by state authorities. In late February, Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to conduct investigations into families seeking gender-affirmative surgical care and prescription drugs for their children, after the state’s attorney general issued a legal opinion arguing that it should be considered child abuse.
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.
Wednesday’s White House ceremony to honor educators comes after the National Education Association released a set of reports illustrating alarming data about staffing shortages and teacher pay. These shortfalls across the US education system, the NEA says, will have a direct effect on students and families.
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.
As the nation continues to deal with a shortage of teachers, prospective educators say they’re being driven away because of low pay, high stress, as well as the effects of the pandemic and remote learning.
The average starting salary for an American teacher during the 2020-2021 school year was $41,770 — a 4% drop compared to the previous year. And an NEA survey revealed that 55% of educators are ready to leave the profession earlier than planned and teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low.
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.
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CNN’s Chris Boyette, Paul LeBlanc, Andy Rose, Tina Burnside, Zoe Sottile, Nicole Chavez and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.