“They gave me the extra push to do better,” says the Sacramento native. “Looking back, I wonder what I would have done if it wasn’t for them. Would I have even gone to college? But they believed in what I would do, so that got me interested and led me to start thinking I could make a difference in someone else.”
Rustin has gone on to do just that. As a history and economics teacher at John Muir High School’s Arts, Entertainment and Media Academy in Pasadena, Calif., Rustin recently received the prestigious Milken Educator Award. The award recognizes early- to mid-career educators for their accomplishments and future promise. Unlike many teaching awards, there is no formal application or nomination process. Every participating state’s department of education appoints an independent committee to recommend candidates according to strict criteria, with final selections made by the Milken Family Foundation. Rustin is one of 39 educators across the nation to receive one of the $25,000 awards.
“I was shocked,” Rustin admits. “It was a whirlwind week with all the calls and media.”
Growing up, Rustin had no idea he was headed for a career in education. A self-described underperformer, Rustin says a few teachers pushed him to do better and got him interested in college. Once he reached the University of California, Los Angeles, the lack of diversity caught his attention. “How can the demographics of a public university be so different from the demographics of the city [in which it is located]?” he asks.
He went on to notice many disparities among races in Los Angeles, not only in the classroom, but also in the work opportunities, income, and other areas. This prompted him to take education classes and start mentoring students in a nearby charter school in order to try to help. “This huge gap that existed motivated me to enter the field and do my part,” he says. “A lot of students feel trapped in a system that doesn’t understand them and isn’t working for them. The walls of the classroom might as well be prison walls.”
When choosing a graduate school, Rustin says he chose Harvard to expose himself to different cultural experiences. As a student in the Teacher Education Program, Rustin learned a lot about issues he had never been exposed to. And, he says, it was amazing to be exposed to so many people who were passionate about teaching.
Because he sees so much of himself in his current students, Rustin uses his time at Harvard as an example and a personal motivator. He wants them to dream big. He also makes sure to focus his teaching on the students and their engagement with the subject matter.
Being in Rustin’s class is more than just a history lesson; he always tries to throw in as many life lessons as possible. “Each year I tell the students in my history classes that they will eventually grow up and forget all the details of what I’m telling them,” he says. “It’s not about facts or details because you can look that up in two seconds on the phone. But it’s about connections between what we learn from history and how we apply that to our own lives as individuals and society.”
Rustin has no plans to leave the classroom and his desire to help the kids he teaches remains as vital as ever.
“If I don’t say anything to this kid will anyone? Will he be on the path to something great or totally slip through the cracks,” he says. “I’d feel a little guilty if I stepped out of the classroom because there are so many lives you could impact and anyone can slip through the cracks and that’s an entire life that could have turned positive.”