Russell Spinney of The Thacher School knows teaching history means teaching humans. He wins this month’s Faculty in the Spotlight award.
Dr. Russell Spinney’s passion for teaching began early on and persists today into his 28th year of teaching. An independent historian with a PhD in history and master’s degree in German language and literature, Spinney has been News Decoder’s faculty liaison at partner institution The Thacher School for four years.
This December, he wins our Faculty in the Spotlight award for his demonstrated commitment to globally-minded media literacy education and socio-emotional learning.
A whole teacher teaching whole students
Spinney is a global educator at heart, having taught in all types of institutions from prisons to universities to German schools. These diverse experiences are united by an understanding that learning is a holistic and social process.
He recognizes himself as a whole individual teaching whole students who enter the classroom with a range of emotions.
“When we are anxious or when we are nervous, when we’re thinking about all these different things with our peers, my goals of trying to impart historical knowledge or anything else just kind of fly by,” he said.
In his history classroom, Spinney aims to foster a safe and fun learning environment that prioritizes socio-emotional health. This means introducing routines that may not be directly related to teaching history — but rather to teaching humans.
“An example of that is just simply doing a breathing practice at the beginning of a class to ground everybody,” said Spinney. “That actually allows executive functions to work as research shows, and students will actually learn more.”
Cultivating a sense of belonging
Informed by this research, Spinney knows that cultivating a sense of belonging goes a long way in supporting academic learning. He is a champion of inclusive schools that celebrate diversity.
“As we’re finding in many of our schools, it’s already diverse and becoming even more diverse,” he said. “And so trying to help support that diversity so that students can feel safe and be able to bring their whole selves into these institutions is critical.”
To foster this sense of belonging, Spinney is sensitive to the power dynamics in his classroom. As possible, he creates opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. His classroom is composed of multiple experts and multiple teachers sharing knowledge with each other.
Transcending classroom walls with models of hope
In line with News Decoder’s mission of solutions-oriented education, Spinney also hopes his students will apply what they learn in the classroom to the wider world around them. He knows he won’t train all his students to become professional historians, but aims to impart a message of civic responsibility and hope to his students.
“I’m really trying to think of how to train students to be critically thinking, engaged citizens of the world,” he said. “So really prompting students to try to find stories of inspiration, stories of hope and models of change and activism that are out there.”
Spinney cited Thacher Student Ambassador Ama Okigbo as a prime example of putting knowledge to work. Okigbo, who is currently in her third year of high school, is the founder of Girls Across Borders. This project was in part inspired by Spinney’s current events curriculum and aims to create a safe online space for girls across the globe to exchange and learn from each other.
These types of student initiatives hit the heart of Spinney’s teaching philosophy.
“I always want to go back and connect with my students,” he said. “To know that they found meaningful purpose, to find ways to engage in this world with the passions that they have and to try to make a difference.”
Joyce Yang is News Decoder’s Program Manager. She is a former classroom teacher passionate about equitable education access, intentional pedagogy and inclusive policy-making.